Like most of the nation, I suddenly find myself desperately wanting to know more about the history, politics and culture of A) the Mideast, B) Afghanistan, C) Islam. I'd like more details on Osama bin Laden's financial network, on how superpower gamesmanship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union helped create the current mess in Afghanistan and how the industrial world's demand for oil keeps authoritarian regimes in the Middle East firmly in place.
The answers are out there, I know. There are scores of good books written about every aspect of Islamic fundamentalism, OPEC and the world economy, and the growth of terrorism in modern times. At Salon, we've even compiled a list pointing readers to the cream of the crop.
But I'm still stymied. Even though I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region as blessed with good bookstores as any in the world, and even though I'm happy to click and buy at Powells.com at the merest whim, I'm currently out of luck. The shelves of both independent and chain bookstores are cleaned out of the best books, many of which are out of print, on back order or published by tiny presses without the resources for large print runs in the first place.
Suddenly, I realize that I would happily pay for the chance to download these books or, better yet, have some kind of print-on-demand service. So where's my e-book, dammit? One of the basic promises of the information age is that we should be able to get the information we want when we want it. And what is increasingly clear to me, right now, is that this means that there is a real market for e-books -- of the right kind, at the right moment.
Imagine, for example, if on Sept. 12, Amazon's front page had highlighted an e-book version of Ahmed Rashid's "The Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia." Five bucks, ten bucks, I don't really care what the right "price point" might have been -- at that moment, I would have paid it immediately and I'm willing to bet thousands of other readers would have too.
There are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to criticize e-books. Personally, I'd much rather read a nicely bound paperback or hardcover book than a few hundred thousand words scrolling across my Palm handheld or specialized e-book reader. I can also understand concerns about security, although I doubt that there would ever be a Napster-like explosion of illicit copyright abuse in the book world. But it also seems to me that in the case of out-of-print or otherwise obscure books that suddenly become relevant because of world events, it shouldn't be that hard to slap a digital version on the Net, and charge for downloads.
When someone finally figures out how to do it right, it will be a blessing not just for the book industry, but for a world that would be much better off if it could be a little less ignorant.