Grumpy Middle-aged Kindle User
Americans love stuff. We in the Bay Area are no less American than our Midwestern cousins, but most of us can’t afford a 5000 sq. ft. house to house that stuff. Having lived in the Bay Area for the last 24 years, I am fortunate to be an anti-hoarder, rigid in my zeal for streamlining. In previous moves—from upstate New York, to Manhattan, to Miami, to Oakland—the only personal possessions I took the time and effort to drag with me were books.
Every reader knows: books are not just books. On an appropriately high shelf I had an entire mountaintop sanatorium (Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain). I had an amazing one-sided friendship with a beautiful, insightful drunk (Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story) and I became acquainted with a whole generation of desperate men (Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On.) Not an insignificant amount of “stuff” for an anti-hoarder.
A few years ago, two things happened: I planned to move into a 668 sq. ft. apartment in San Francisco and the Kindle came out. (Truthfully, the Kindle had come out four years earlier than the apartment purchase but I had been hoping it would go away.) My hyper-rational self decided that my new apartment would sag under the weight of my 1500+ books. And why wouldn’t I make the move to a Kindle? The story inside was what I craved—reading it in electronic form would be no different. So I sat around, Sophie’s Choice-style, and came up with a few tokens to take with me. Goodbye Columbus, autographed by Philip Roth, was my first love—we could never part. Two books I had just finished—Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, and 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn—because I was so overwhelmed by the stunning writing. Oh, I wept as I sorted, at least in my minimalistic little heart. I persevered by reminding myself how stupendously green I was, how easy the move would be. Three others, long out-of-print, made the cut because I wasn’t convinced they would make it to electronic form: P.O.W., by John G. Hubbell, a book which included John McCain’s story; Little, by Louis Zukofsky, about his violin-prodigy son; Dawn Over Zero—a book about the Manhattan Project. William L. Laurence may have caused great controversy when he later claimed that the black rain over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “not significantly radioactive” but he also explained nuclear fission so beautifully that I almost understood it. For the remainder (I know—a dreadful word to use for a book) I spent months making an Excel spreadsheet of their titles and authors, photographed their distinctive spines (yes, really), then loaded them into boxes. Next stop—a prison library.
I bought a Kindle. My first download was a re-read—John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. For days, I’d been ruminating over a particular scene in the book, the scene in which Reverend Merrill reveals that he is the narrator’s father. That revelation had always bothered me. The magical aspects unveiled in the rest of the book all seemed to have an explanation that was plausibly rooted in reality, but this revelation, seemingly coming from God, struck me as too fantastic. Fiction that never strikes the reader with wonder is pedestrian but a story that is too fantastical is just science fiction. Magic happens when fiction is grounded enough in reality that it is just possible. It bothered me that I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d been satisfied that it could have happened in the real world so I wanted to re-read it.
To be fair, my first Kindle didn’t have the search feature that my present (third) Kindle has. (But, to be equitable, an inquiry into “that place where the baseball comes rolling out” on my current Kindle yielded “there are no results found in this book.”) So I went to Barnes and Noble. I knew the scene was about 3/4 of the way through the physical book itself. Even if I hadn’t remembered, I could’ve flipped easily back and forth. I found it quickly (and smugly) and answered my nagging question. The baseball scene was more rooted in reality than I’d remembered—I could believe that the Father wanted so badly to confess that his voice could seem to be coming from Someone else—leading me, the reader, to that delightful place where I wasn’t sure whether or not something divine had occurred.
That was just one small win for the physical book category. Surely I would become better at using the search function. But a bigger problem occurred to me as I was standing in the fiction aisle at Barnes: one of my great joys was to spend hours a week browsing in bookstores, wandering from Barnes and Noble to Berkeley’s independents like Cody’s and Moe’s and Pegasus. I loved picking a category like Medical Narratives or New Memoir and start in the A’s, tilting my head to the right until a title caught my interest. I’d crack it open and read the first page, hoping to be taken in. If that did the job I’d sit on the floor like a squatter, moving only when pressed. I could repeat this until I found my next read or until the store closed. Now my hobby was gone.
I could adapt to a new way to pick out books. I was a) middle-aged, but b) determined—I soon found my preferred sites for both browsing and recommendations. One of those recommendations was my next purchase—The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont. A book I had enjoyed this much should have come to mind easily. It didn’t—I had to look through the fiction list on my Kindle to remember both title and author. At first, I didn’t know why; I could easily recall older novels I had known and loved passionately: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from a River. In my own made-up game of Jeopardy, I was the know-it-all who couldn’t be caught. Answer: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Question—What is my favorite cancer memoir! Answer: The book you felt compelled to read even though it was so exquisitely painful it made you cry. Question—What is Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath!
Why couldn’t I remember a book I’d so recently read? At first, I considered the idea that dementia issues begin in this manner—older memories retained, newer ones lost. Then I realized it was simpler: every time I opened my Kindle to read, I saw only the page where I’d left off. In print, it’s different. During the few days it took me to read Bill Bryson’s ridiculously funny travelogue of small town America, I saw his name and the title The Lost Continent every time I picked up the book. Title, author, reminder.
That leads to the biggest drawback. If the question is “What are you reading?” and the answer is “I don’t know,” it’s kind of a buzz-kill. It makes books hard to share. When I carried around Tom Perotta’s Little Children someone asked if I’d seen the movie. (No. I was afraid it might not be as good.) When I carried around Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I got into a discussion about what a dazzling feat it was to write so beautifully in the first person plural. When I carried around Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise, I got to tell the story about how I was so thrilled with the book I got a speeding ticket because I was racing home to finish it. Now, when I carry around my Kindle, questions are about the device itself: Is that the latest Kindle? What’s the charge life? Will it get trashed if I’m too cheap to buy a cover?
I’ll get used to underlining and dog-earing electronically. I’ll (begrudgingly) accept that I have to manually transfer my whole library from one Kindle to the next (and keep hoping they’ll fix that). I appreciate how nice it is to go on vacation without checking a bag. I know there are many great ways to share online—I imagine a reader saying, “Tell that (old) lady about Goodreads, BookandReader, BookTalk.” But an actual print book with a title, an author, and a cover that becomes associated with the story—that’s an invitation, a departure point to begin talking to others in person about what’s inside. That’s what I miss.
Update: After four years, experiment ended. Back to paper.
Number of books read since experiment ended one month ago: 4
Number of books discussed with others this month: 4
Number of titles remembered: 4
Number of glorious trips to bookstores: 3
Number of authors remembered: 1 1/2 (One complete, one first name only. This part will surely not improve but only because middle-age does not work backwards.)