Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The book is dead. Long live the book.

One of the reasons I love to catch public transport is that it builds reading time into my day.  I never travel without a book to read and love that people will acknowledge my reading choice and often engage me in conversation about what I'm reading.

That all changed when I received an e-reader* for my birthday last year.

On one level I was delighted with the gift.  It was very generous.  It felt good to have the latest geek chic.  I could carry around hundreds of books in my handbag without noticing it. Packing for holidays would be a dream.  I could borrow e-books from the library!  I wouldn't be constantly using more of the world's resources.

On another level, I grew anxious.  Would it be as satisfying to read the final page?  How could I lend books to my friends?  Browsing in a book store (remember them?) would never be the same again - there's something great about the sensual experience of physically feeling the heft of the book and hearing the pages turn.

Some other great things about the e-reader - the ability to manipulate font size on a page!  No more squinting over tiny print.  What a wonder is the built in dictionary!  The meaning of words need be a mystery no more.  Falling asleep with the 1000+ pages of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" no longer risked death when I suffered concussion or suffocated amongst the pages.

But I noticed with the e-reader that no one knows what I'm reading any more.  That's ok, except that also means that random flirting opportunities on the platform at Flinders Street with literature as the great unifier are GONE!

I'm thinking of two occasions.  Once I noticed a (quite attractive) man  reading the aforementioned "Infinite Jest".  It is quite an accomplishment to have read this book and I decided to offer this (quite attractive) man some encouragement to finish reading.  So I spoke to him about the book.  He changed plans for which train he was catching and I gave him my card in case he wanted to debrief when he finished.  Just to be clear, by "debrief" I mean "debrief".  Ok, so in this case study I was the one approaching the other person, but if the (quite attractive) man had been reading "Infinite Jest" on an e-reader, the conversation never would have happened.

On the second occasion I was travelling on a crowded peak hour train in the morning.  I was reading "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy.  Diagonally across the aisle from me, a (very attractive) man caught my attention.  He had dark curly hair, brown eyes and a Spanish accent.  He was swarthy.  He asked me how I was going with the book and was I enjoying it.

I responded: "Yes.  I'm really enjoying it.  To put it in context thought, I'm only 30 pages in, so there's a lot more to go."

He said he hadn't been able to get into it at all and then we established that he didn't have the new translation**.  I gave him the details and he skipped off the train.  He didn't look as attractive when he skipped.

Now, if I'd been reading "Anna Karenina" on an e-reader, this conversation never would have taken place.

My friend who gave me the e-reader says that I shouldn't discount the possibility that a (very handsome and intelligent) man will strike up a conversation with me about my e-reader.  Well, that could happen.  But talking about my screen resolution doesn't seem as romantic as David Foster Wallace's extensive use of footnotes or farming methods in rural Russia before the revolution.

Or we could talk about the  fact my e-reader froze 10 pages before the end of one of the Sookie Stackhouse novels.  Literally as Sookie was about to be drained.  Or something.  THAT would never happen with an actual book.

Feeling this loss of real books, yesterday I decided to read an actual book while travelling.  I intentionally chose the book because it is hilarious and I wanted to do the public laughter test during peak hour.  The book is "How I became a Famous Novelist" by Steve Hely***.  It is very funny - laugh-out-loud funny in fact.

So there I am sitting in the middle of a bank of 3 seats facing a fully occupied bank of three seats. Knees were touching.  I started to giggle over my book.  Then I let rip a chuckle or two and at one stage I tested things with a laugh, then a sharp intake of breath which resulting in the snort.

On the first sound, the man opposite me looked up.  Then he continued to read.  On my next chuckle, he looked up again, longer this time, the people sitting either side also looked up.  The man was now frowning.  I could see he was trying to get a look at the title of my book.  I remained engaged in my book.  A wave of laughter emanated again, this time he shrugged, shook his head and glared at me!

Why would someone glare?  What's the problem with laughing in public?  Then it occurred to me - he was jealous of my book.  His book was clearly very serious and he didn't need to be reminded of it thank you very much.

I snuck a glance at his book.  It was "The Great Train Robbery".  Perhaps he was doing research and planning a heist.  Clearly a very serious business.  Lucky I wasn't laughing over my e-reader, he may have snatched it from my hands and run off into the night.

*It's a Sony if you need to know.
** The translation in question is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
***Steve Hely is one of the writers for TV shows "30 Rock", "The Office" and "American Dad".


  1. I love my e-reader..i converted about a year ago - but now am hooked. I love having a library in my handbag...I love that I can purchase books anywhere any anytime... (i'll be purchasing Steve Heley's book in about 2 minutes!) But i do miss a browse in a bookshop....i LOVE the smell of books...quite frankly the kindle doesn't quite cut it on that front. Read this article today - somewhat disturbing...

  2. Thanks for sharing the link to that article Danielle. Very scary indeed. And here I am writing a blog which the big corporations consider to be nothing more than "free content". Perhaps I should give up in order to prolong the life of the book. I can't imagine no more books - although if writers can't live while they are written, then there won't be anymore books.

    Let me know what you think of Steve Hely - especially if you do the public laughter test!

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Oh how I wished I loved catching Public transport...