The World is Yours, Oyster

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You’re going to get Oyster. Maybe not today, if you already have a stack of books in your kitchen. (You don’t have a stack of books in your kitchen? Then where do you put the overflow from your bedroom, living room, and bathroom?) But eventually Oyster is coming for all of us. Litblogs will make a habit of telling you which new Oyster arrivals to read next, just like entertainment blogs do with Netflix. Oyster is Netflix for books. It’s Netboox. Get used to it.

For $9.95 a month you get unlimited access to old and new-ish books on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. All of the books are published by HarperCollins, Melville House, Houghton Mifflin, and a few others. That’s the only reason to wait on getting Oyster—not enough publishers have joined the party yet. But the app is intuitively designed, and it’s a pleasure to skip among books, consequence-free, with a flick of your thumb. Where else can you toggle from Lauren Conrad to Tao Lin, Wheat Belly to Moby-Dick, J.R.R. Tolkien to Mark Cuban?

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This ain’t a bookstore, so don’t bother looking for specific writers. Oyster has never heard of Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, Marilynne Robinson, Ken Kesey, Lydia Davis, or Alice Munro. But in addition to the out-of-copyright classics that swirl around the internet like dust motes, Oyster offers heaps of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth, virtually all of Mary McCarthy and Malcolm Lowry, and selections of early Michael Chabon and Jhumpa Lahiri. Browse for a while and you’ll find something that holds your interest. I plan on coming back for James Salter, Lionel Shriver, Ron Rash, Leigh Stein, Jess Walter, and Italo Calvino. My Netflix queue is similarly overambitious.

Oyster will probably degrade the quality of our reading. We’ll become a nation of browsers and skimmers—those of us who aren’t already. As bigger publishers sign on, Oyster will continue to promote the bestsellers of yesteryear, making crap like Life of Pi and Everything Is Illuminated even more inescapable than it already is. If Spotify is any indication, writers will earn about $0.0000195 cents every time their book is read. We’ll get frustrated by Oyster’s limited selection. We’ll expect all books to magically appear in our hands, at no extra cost, as soon as they’re available.

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Americans watch a lot of TV, and most of us aren’t snobby or fanatic about it, which is part of the reason why Netflix works—you find some halfway decent content and press PLAY, then go back to heating dinner on a camping stove. (Because your kitchen is full of books, remember?) Fewer Americans read books. But those of us who read, read a lot. And we know exactly what we want. I have trouble imagining the ideal reader that Oyster caters to—someone who finishes Alicia Silverstone’s diet book and immediately picks up Richard Dawkins. It took me days to come across a book I was really passionate about—Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music. Oyster had filed it in Sci-Fi & Fantasy, under the category “Talking Animals.” Which is like putting War & Peace in Dance, as “Russian folk music.”

Oyster is suddenly the best way to deliver books and charge money for them on a digital device. (Books stay on your device even when you’re offline, which is nice.) But it will probably make writers poorer, and make good indie books harder to discover. The first time I typed “Oyster” on my iPhone I misspelled it “ouster.”

– Brian Hurley

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