When is a Burger Not a Burger? ~ Reflections on My New E-Reader

I got an e-reader for Christmas. I feel a little guilty about it, I must admit, while also being seduced by its sleekness, its elegant lines and impressive heft. I am not one for gadgets, usually, but for some reason this little tablet, and the very pretty leather binder I intend to buy to hold it in soon, lures me. But I am a book person. I love to browse bookstores, to own new and used tomes, to find special editions and autographed copies, to get many copies of the same book that I find I love and give them away to friends and family. It is important to me, to my worldview, to my career, that the book publishing industry stay alive and well.

So why have I sold out on this? Why have I gone over to the other side?

A few reasons. The reader was a present. A gift from my wonderful husband Philip, who for our first Christmas, bought me a first edition of a Faulkner novel. He’s a book guy, too. And a gadget guy. (Is that redundant? Are all guys gadget guys?) But after its original release in paperback, my book The Temple of Air has come out in electronic form, and he thought we should get our own copy of it. And at least a half-dozen of my writer friends have books that are only available electronically. And we travel a lot, often carrying many heavy books among our things, lugging new hard covers in our carry-on luggage, stuffing the latest book finds into the side pockets of our checked suitcases. We are getting older and struggle with heavy bags; we live on the third floor and it is a long climb up after an exhausting trip home; we don’t like to pay the extra for checked or too-heavy luggage. I can use the tablet as an extension of my average-intelligence phone and get to my work email relatively easily. (These are just a few of the excuses I am storing up for the cocktail party debates on electronic versus paper and cardboard books.)

I got to try the reader out while we were on holiday in Florida. I deliberately did not pack the book that was unfinished on my bedside table, but instead loaded a number of titles onto my new, smart tablet. On the plane I put the tablet into the pocket in the seat in front of me, preparing my space (as I do) for the flight. I had a copy of The New Yorker, too, my reading of choice for air travel. I dozed (it was a 6 AM flight) and read a few articles. I did not read from the reader. We landed; I packed it back in its temporary carrier (a velvet bag meant for holding a bottle of wine you might take to a party for the host.)

When we arrived at our vacation rental in Vilano Beach, I played around with the reader, checked my email, looked at Facebook, surfed a little. I read more from the wrinkled paper pages of The New Yorker before I went to bed; I placed the reader close by but kept it turned off. The next day I used it to look at a sample magazine, National Geographic, and marveled at the clarity and colors of the photographs, the graphics. I read a couple pages. And that night, I took the plunge. I opened one of the books I had purchased and began to read.

The things I had anticipated bothering me didn’t. I thought that tapping the right margin to turn the page would be distracting, that moving from page to page would be something akin to watching jumpy camera work on a hip new television show. It was fine. I turned off the sounds, so I didn’t have to hear any of the fake noises that are supposed to make me believe I was reading a book of paper, ink, and cardboard. I was not. Occasionally, I would do the wrong thing, twist the little mechanism in my hands, hit a part of the page that opened an odd window, but that was no more or less frustrating than dropping the book or turning two pages at a time—those things that happen when you are an in-bed reader like I am.

The book I had chosen to read was a collection of short stories of mostly very short length. They were airy and clever, now and again striving to be something else, something more, but usually not quite getting there. They were not unpleasant, were rather entertaining, and spent most of the time on the surface. They were showy. A little heavy on the gimmick. I read the book quickly, tapping through the pages on the screen, one after another after another. Often when I read a real book (does that sound smug?) I find myself flipping forward to see how many pages I have left to the end of a story, the end of a chapter. I pace myself to get there, sometimes reading into sleep, needing to hit the milestone of an ending before I am willing to close the book and turn off the light. (You know how this goes, and how often I will have to go back to read those pages again since my sleep-reading might lead to interesting dreams, but not to any true comprehension of the words and stories themselves.) I haven’t yet figured out how to do this efficiently on the reader, so instead I just trusted the story to find its way to the ending. The thing is, in most cases with this collection I was reading, the endings came far too soon. They came at me like punch lines often, of jokes told too quickly and a bit too loudly. And while the book may not have been quite what I was hoping for, the reader was much more satisfying a tool than I was willing to imagine.

By the last day of our trip, though, Philip had finished the paperback he had brought along, and had started to read one of the other books I had loaded onto my reader. We were down to one reader between the two of us—a musical chairs sort of situation. So we went into Saint Augustine (what a great, great small city!) and stopped in Second Read Books on Cordova Street. And while I still have a handful of books loaded on my reader, I found myself picking out a paperback I’d always wanted to read (one that is available on the reader, by the way) and enjoying the feel of it in my hand, the way the corners of a number of its pages were turned back by someone else, the way the cover looked thumbed and slightly worn from being folded around the spine of the book. I bought it. Philip bought a book as well (another by the author of the book he’d started on my reader.) And on the plane this time, the reader didn’t even make it out of my bag.

Since I’ve been home, I have carried the new used book on the train with me to read on my way to work. I have read it before sleep at night, and last night, when my neighbors were having a loud, outdoor party until two in the morning because it was a remarkable 50 degrees in January in Chicago, I turned the light on and read some more to quiet my mind.

The reader has gone unused for its primary purpose.

I know this will change. I am a person who takes a while to get used to things. (Whenever Microsoft Word changes its formats or tool bar it sends me into a frothy tizzy.) But I do adapt. Eventually. I have a cell phone, use the internet, tweet, make friends on Facebook. We got rid of our landline, watch movies instantly, bank on-line. I will—soon enough—read books on my reader, even when I am not traveling. But I will also continue to buy new and used books I can hold in my hands and can flip forward or backward in, can literally turn down the corners of the pages in.

But for now I have been thinking about the book I have read on it and how that title (I call it this because that is what this publication is, a title, not a literal book) seems appropriate for an e-reader. The device to me seems to be like what I said about the collection: it is striving to be something else, something more, but usually not quite getting there. It, too, is not unpleasant and is rather entertaining. The reader is a little showy. A little heavy on the gimmick.

As I get used to it, though, (and particularly when I buy it its beautiful new leather cover!), I know I will grow more fond of it. It will become its own thing, not just a substitute for something else.

I felt something like this when we got our new cats (Pablo and Enrique) after my dear companion Rafiki died. These cats were nice, fun to watch, but I would never love them as much as I did Rafiki. Now however, ten years later, I love them fiercely, achingly, and differently to the way I loved Rafiki. No more, no less, just differently.

It’s like veggie burgers. People who are meat eaters find veggie burgers ridiculous; they taste nothing like real burgers. Of course not; they are not real burgers. Yet for me (a vegetarian with the occasional fish consumption) veggie burgers are marvelous. They are not hamburgers, and I am glad for that. I don’t want them to be hamburgers. As I will often want specific books to be books, and other titles to be read on my reader. And more than likely, I will keep two libraries (one physical, the other cyber) with many of the same books and shared titles. Eventually (and I plan to say this during my part in the cocktail party debates) I will come to love my reader in a way that’s similar but slightly different to the way I love my books.

No more, no less. Just differently.

→Thanks again for reading. On whatever platform you do so. And Happy New Year! -PMc←