Loss of connection.
Not connectivity. Connecting readers.
While many are thrilled at this new world, one in which nasty old paper artifacts like printed books, magazines and newspapers will disappear — and not a moment too soon! — here’s something that bothers me.
How many times, whether you’re 25 or 65, have you discovered a story, an idea, an author or a new friend because you saw what they were reading? Two nights ago, I was getting off the commuter train from Manhattan to my suburban town. I noticed a woman behind me reading “An American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld, a book that’s received rave reviews which I have yet to read.
“What do you think of it?” I asked, without preamble. “I really like it,” she replied.
“Have you read ‘Prep’?” She hadn’t, which led, as we shared the doorway ready to exit, to a brief conversation.
For me, there were multiple pleasures in this: two readers, two Sittenfeld fans trading notes, two neighbors having a quick conversation about work. All of it sparked by the visible physical presence of a book. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done this, and it’s happened to me worldwide, on planes and trains, in waiting rooms and airport lounges, anywhere someone is reading printed matter — or I am — a lively, enjoyable conversation has begun when two strangers realize they love the same thing.
This may seem trivial. It is deeply important to authors because books become best-sellers in one way: word of mouth. Not ads, not reviews, not book clubs. Word of mouth. And, as someone whose first book has been rendered invisible by its publisher thanks to print-on-demand (i.e. it is not sold any more in bookstores, only available by special order), a book that is not seen is a book that is not heard about, not loved, not argued over, not sold.
Re-play this recent scene with the young woman reading an iPad. There is no point of conversational entry. I can’t see what she’s reading, nor can anyone else. You can’t as we all have done, read over their shoulder, or, subway-typical, read the other side of whatever newspaper page might be held up in front of you.
Is this a loss or a gain?
Privacy. Anonymity. Facelessness. These are becoming the new hallmarks of people who read, thanks to the new ways in which they are reading.
I was given a Kindle for my birthday last June. I love almost every gift I reveive from my partner, but this one failed. I’ve barely looked at it since — and yesterday came home from our local library with half a dozen books, with more on order. As I write my new book, I’m also buying books for research, books I need to dog-ear, underline, Post-it note, photocopy for research. I need, and want, a physical object when I read. I already spend my bloody worklife attached to a screen. I want to flee!
And, as someone who also deeply values design, photography, even typefaces, the loss of the visual beauty of a printed book saddens me; I love the cover of my first book and look forward to seeing what the designers choose for my next one.
As someone who never leaves her home without at least 1-4 forms of printed reading material, who thrives on the pleasure of shared enthusiasm for a great story, idea or writer, these sexy new toys annoy me on another level.
Anyone who deeply values thoughtful reading looks forward, perhaps with some trepidation, to the first time they enter the home of a new friend or someone they have fallen in love with — what do they read? A quick glance (every journo’s trick, which is another reason why about 99% of celebrity interviews are held in restaurants) at someone’s bookshelves often reveals a great deal about their taste level, their ambitions, history, hopes and dreams.
If they don’t even have bookshelves, let alone stacks of magazines, that’s a warning sign for me. Are they addicted to sci-fi? Cookbooks? Self-help? History? Thrillers? An intellectual match, for some of us, is as much as crucial piece of “chemistry” as someone’s smile, smell or sense of humor.
If you’re deeply curious about their reading habits, what are you going to do — grab their iPad or Kindle and sneak a quick peek when they go to the bathroom?
If all books, magazines and newspapers disappear from their printed forms, if all we read is on our private, invisible, unshared electronic machines, have we lost anything valuable?