Kindling

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About six months ago, my wife bought a Kindle. This was a move of serious consequence for a writer whose whole life has centered around books, real books, ones that have heft and smell and whose pages are laid out in pleasing configurations of font size and spacing.

 But she had two very valid reasons for stepping across what had previously been a border guarded by dragons. First, changes in her vision made two aspects of the Kindle particularly attractive: the backlighting that supported her insatiable need for light, and the ability to change the text’s font size which partially mitigated the need for the dozens of pairs of non-prescription glasses scattered about the house, none of which can be found when needed.

The other justification for the purchase is one that increases my already boundless love for my wife. She has developed unfortunate sleep patterns which often keep her up for periods each night. The kindle enables her to read in bed when all other sleep aids fail. There’s no need to turn on a light, which would surely disrupt my sleep because the little devil is equipped with its own inner illumination. So far, I have never lost a minute’s sleep to Ayad Akhtar and his virtual successors.

I would add here that both our daughters had Kindles before us, both for reasons of portability. One commuted by bus and subway to work and found carrying that admirably slender object a lot less burdensome than transporting a book, not to mention that it foiled the efforts of nosy seat mates to figure out what she was reading. The other daughter leads a double life, half the year on each side of ocean, so loading books onto the Kindle avoids a lot of burdensome schlepping. Her situation reminds me of an essay I read by the author and editor Charles McGrath when the kindle was still young and resistance to it still high. He described his occasional month-long stays in China which, pre-Kindle, would have required the shipment of an entire trunk of books to his destination. It was an argument that, although insufficient to crack my resistance, made sense on a practical level and didn’t defile my worship of the book as holy object.

Recently, I began reading a biography of Paul Robeson, the great African American singer whose growing frustration with American racism drove him into the arms of Socialism, making him a target of the powerful anti-communist forces of the time. The author, Martin Duberman, is one of my favorites and I was delighted to learn via Wikipedia that he is still alive at age 90+. Now, this book is a proverbial door stop – almost 600 pages of text and another 100+ pages of notes. That makes for uncomfortable reading. I’ve tried all kinds of sitting positions and locations. The one that comes closest to adequacy requires that I belly up as close as possible to my desk so that the upper end of the book rests on the edge of the desk while the lower end sits on my aforementioned belly. Any change of position invites disaster, with the full weight of the book coming to rest either on me or the floor.

Although I was finding the book engaging, my travails were making me long for a slim paperback novel or memoir. Enter my wife with a repeat suggestion that I introduce myself to her Kindle and to one of its current residents, the very Ayad Akhtar.  From this point on, the story becomes a traditional “How I Lost My Virginity” narrative. I’m about a quarter of the way through his book, and I wanted to record my reactions to entering this brave new world while they’re fresh. My wife says, “What? You’re writing about the Kindle already? Why don’t you give it some time while you get more experience with it?” She has a point, but freshness has its virtues as well. So here goes.

It’s quite an adjustment going from heavyweight Robeson to featherweight Akhtar. (I’m not talking about the quality of content here, but about the container in which they’re delivered.) Now I can sit anywhere, if it will keep me awake. Then there’s the swiping. I’ve never had this experience myself, but it made me think of all the accounts I’ve read about dating sites that require swiping left or right to signal interest or lack thereof. The problem for me is that the small doses of text on each screen requires constant swiping to receive the next window. For slow readers like me, there are long periods of respite between page turns. With the Kindle I feel as if my right hand is permanently poised for the next swipe. I’m getting the rhythm of it but it’s oddly distracting. My wife complains about the difficulty of looking back at earlier passages in the book which in the Stone Age simply required flipping pages. She cites the example of reading a Russian novel which is invariably full of characters with long, confusing names. The only hope is to flip back to find the character’s original appearance which will make clear whose nephew he is and who he is married to. In my single book sampling of the kindle, it’s not a problem I’ve run into. I’ve never had to go backwards one page to confirm that I hadn’t skipped something.

My other major complaint involves tracking progress. The first thing I do when beginning a book is check the final page number to gauge the challenge I’m undertaking. Every time I put the book aside, I’m making a mental calculation of how many pages are left till the finish line. The Kindle offers more oblique benchmarks. It tells you what percentage of the book you’ve read and, with one extra click, what page number you’re on, but not how many more you have to go. It’s not an earth-shattering problem, but it’s disruptive of many decades of established reading habits.

If I had been writing this piece a couple of years ago, it would have been filled with more fire and brimstone of the “Kindles mark the end of civilization as we know it” variety, but my ardor on the subject has cooled. This is also true of my reaction to audio books. What is our definition of reading? Does it necessarily require a printed and bound object interacting with the retina of the “reader?” Or is it about absorbing the contents of work created by a writer “by any means necessary”?  I’ll confess that any deviation from the traditional form of reading will always feel like cheating to me, but I’m working hard to beat back that Luddite view. After all, what’s important is the opportunity to bask in the pleasure of the work of a gifted writer, and if that involves something other than reading from a real book, so be it. I am enjoying the Akhtar book enormously, so excuse me while I fire up my Kindle for another go.

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Marv Hoffman

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