New Orleans Steve Early is a organizer, lawyer, journalist, and without question longtime labor activist in the best, classic sense of the word, which also means he can be a royal pain in the butt to bosses and colleagues alike, a tireless advocate, and one-man jihadist on something he feels strongly about like SEIU and Andy Stern. Over the last couple of years though I’ve found him to be a very decent and generous guy, so though we don’t see eye to eye on many things, I’ve come to respect and admire his relentless pursuits even when quixotic and somewhat inexplicable to me. I joked opening a panel the other day named after his most recent book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? that I thought sometimes he invited me to such events because I was the only person with a connection to SEIU who would talk to him, which of course isn’t true, since he’s a magnet for any dissident or unhappy former SEIU soul.
The panel itself was fascinating. The room was packed and Early was committed to letting everyone have their say, and largely let them do so evenhandedly and without argument. It was how I would have imagined a session on some kind of group organizational therapy. The assembled folks who were long time and dedicated labor educators meeting in New Orleans with the United Association of Labor Educators were universally clear on only one thing: they did not like conflict! They differed sometimes on whether it was a good or bad thing, but there was high consensus that they felt torn between sides, too often forced to choose when they just wanted to serve the labor movement, and frustrated that they could not find either safe space for their own programs or common ground between the combatants. They had chosen the bridge between unions and the academy looking to walk on higher ground and have a good vantage point and all of a sudden they felt way too close to the action.
New Orleans I’m not much of a consumer. My truck is over a dozen years old. My house is many times older and the mortgage is paid. I only replace my running shoes every couple of years and my boots every three years. But I’ve always bought books for work, for pleasure, and for part of what simply makes life and thinking worth the work, so I was in the very first wave of consumers to buy a Kindle when Amazon first introduced the device.
Even at the first adapter’s higher premium price, it made sense to me because of both cost and weight. Since I travel a lot, it would mean not having to tote half-dozen books to India or Argentina for a week or two on the road. I would have continued to all the weight though except that the price was so good on an electronic book at $9.99 which was pretty much the top rate from Amazon for a Kindle book. Calculating the number of books I bought in a year, it seemed to me that I would amortize the cost of the Kindle within a year, especially since it was right after Katrina and I could no longer get the Times at home. I jumped to order a Kindle when they first came on market and have stayed with it all the way to what Amazon calls “Wade Kindle 3,” since #1 was stolen with a bag in Bogota and #2 had a screen die on me in Atlanta not long ago. I’ve liked reading books on a Kindle. I love the notes and underlining feature, which makes both more convenient than locating a hardcopy book somewhere in the house and searching for what I thought I remembered which really never happens. I’ve “sold” Kindles to friends who read and neighbors on airplanes.
Now I am confused though because competition and the I-pad have changed the Kindle business model outside of my comfortable calculations and created my own personal consumer’s conundrum around convenience versus cost and paper versus screens in a way that I had thought I had finally resolved. It’s one thing to read the handwringing of publishers and competitors, but it’s quite another to have to suddenly make price comparison decision for every book purchase. More often than not, I’m confounded by the fact that the hardcopy and often the hardcover book I want is cheaper than the Kindle version. How did that happen and what does it mean for the future of all of these enterprises?
I was moved to weight in today because I went online with Amazon to buy a copy of a book that was the lead review in the Times this Sunday for my brother for Christmas. There was never a doubt when I logged on that I was going to buy a hardcover, because it would be a gift after all. The list price in the review was quoted as $35.00. The Amazon “new” price was $21.00. I checked the Kindle price, and it was $19.35 or so. Add shipping and I paid $24.98 or something or more than a 25% premium on the Kindle version, if I had been buying for myself. If it had been an important book to me, I might have gone hardcover just for the photos.