Keeping a promise I made to myself when I was down with pneumonia over the holidays, I have been reading again. On one level, I never stopped reading. I read all the time: newspapers online and off, blogs, scholarly and popular journal articles, tweets, reports, more blogs, more articles. I read books and portions of books that touch on topics I’m writing about. I will even admit to reading a copy of “Lucky” magazine now and then, although you wouldn’t know that from my wardrobe.
Much of my day is consumed by reading. What I’m talking about, though, is the kind of sink-into-a-book reading I used to do a lot more of, the kind you do just because you feel like it, not because your teacher or your job expects it of you or because you have 10 idle minutes to fill.
At Christmastime I read George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a book that would probably have destroyed any illusions I had left about the life of the literati if I had any illusions left to destroy. Right now I’m about 400 pages in to Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which has far more heart than Gissing’s novel but still has scorching things to say about literary striving and about many other things, including commercial greed, romantic indecision, and the self-defeating snobbery and shallowness of English aristocrats.
It’s a Big Book, in every sense. And here’s the thing: Part of the pleasure of reading it is the public pleasure of toting around a Big Book. I like pulling out my 842-page paperback edition on the Metro. It makes me feel…serious. It’s a private experience that I want other people to recognize. Shallow? Yes. But I must acknowledge it. (There’s a case for voyeurism to be made here too. Admit it: It’s fun to see what other people are reading.)
Would I feel this way if I were reading in on a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad? I don’t think so. I’d still be enjoying the heck out of the story. But there would be very little in the way of satisfying public display involved in the reading of it. A flat gray screen in an anonymous case tells you precisely nothing about the book being read.
I had a taste of this when I began reading The Way We Live Now. The second-hand bookshop near my office didn’t have a copy of the novel and I didn’t have time to get to another store for a few days, so I downloaded a free Kindle edition onto my smartphone. As far as my fellow Metro riders were concerned, I could have been reading almost anything–email, Twitter, the weather report. (When I reported on Twitter than I was reading Trollope on my Android, someone made a good gag about trollops with smartphones.)
A paragraph of Trollope on a 4-inch screen has no obvious gravitas. Nor did it make me appreciate the novel in all its heft. I had no idea how long it was, how much space it filled, until I laid hands on a physical copy. The heft pleases me. Its presence is a reminder that there are big stories to read and to tell and that some things can’t be reduced to a paragraph or two on a screen.
This is not an anti-ebook rant. I like the hybrid book environment that’s developing, and it makes sense to me that a lot of what’s published should exist in e-versions. I don’t own an ereader yet; I’ve been waiting for the market to shake out a little, and there’s always something else that the money could be spent on. I expect that before long, though, I will be toting around a digital reading device somewhat larger than my phone. I expect that I’ll enjoy the experience of reading on whatever device ultimately gets the bid. Maybe bookish app designers will come up with holographic book-jacket projections so we can advertise our reading choices to the world, even when we’re reading on screens. Maybe that would satisfy the same private-but-public impulse that my 842-page edition satisfies. Maybe.
Do you want the world to know what you’re reading? Why? If you use an e-reader, how does the experience feel different from reading the same book in paper? What’s better and what’s worse? Tell me.
Steve Turtell says
I love my kindle (especially on planes and trains) but I miss seeing what others are reading. And yes, there’s a difference in how I respond to some writing on the kindle. But I was amazed that a co-worker read all of Swann’s Way on his iPhone. I don’t think he understood it any less well.
Hi Steve: Thanks for the comment. I’m curious to discover what it’s like to read an entire book on a Kindle or comparable device; my reading encounters with a smartphone screen have been unsatisfying so far. I get frustrated by seeing such a small amount of text at a time, and I don’t like not having a sense of how long the book is and where I am in it.
All of Proust on an iPhone? That’s proof of a determined reader. Then again, it’s such an enormous work that to get through it at all you have to be constantly chipping away at it. Under those circumstances, perhaps doing it one screenful at a time makes sense.
Shana Kimball says
My feelings on this are somewhat divided. It *is* fun to see what people are reading and to engage in a bit of social display. On vacations with friends, I’ve even felt a little anti-social when they pull out paperbacks and I fire up my e-reader. It’s as if I’m not fully participating in this alone-together activity.
That said, I’ve also found myself traveling alone and have appreciated that I can sit at a restaurant or bar alone, e-reader in hand, and have my reading material be known only to me. Having some readerly privacy in public is a gift to a young woman (or anyone!) who doesn’t want to be chatted up about how she’s enjoying this classic novel or that NY Times bestseller. Reading a novel on my iPhone, I look like I’m busy, and sometimes, that’s the way I like it.
Shana: I often think of reading material as a shield from the world but you’re right that it can be taken a an invitation or excuse to strike up a conversation. Have we moved past the stage where people will strike up a conversation about the reading device itself? I’ve overheard a lot of “Do you like your Kindle?” interactions between strangers. Same with the iPad. That’s already changing as devices become more ubiquitous.
If I had a Kindle I think I’d get this cover for it to scratch that social-display itch:
Neil Griffin says
I also enjoy bringing a book out in public and seeing if somebody recognizes it. For me, the best use for a kindle is reading the books you wouldn’t want to be caught with in a public space. If you want to read a thriller or a YA book (and who doesn’t sometimes), you can throw it on the kindle and the folks on the subway can’t tell Hunger Games from Proust.
Neil: Now that’s a fascinating subject–what we don’t want other people to catch us reading. A surprising (to me) number of people I see on the subway don’t seem to care that everybody knows they’re reading a bodice-ripper or a contemporary romance. (What do you call a bodice-ripper that doesn’t have any bodices?) Those covers demand to be noticed, after all, and some are pretty racy. Nobody tries to hide their copies of “The Fountainhead,” either.
The most embarrassing book that I’ve read in public is probably “The Da Vinci Code.” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about but I didn’t like being one of millions all reading the same book at the same time, and I was irritated enough by the story and the writing that I didn’t have the compensatory pleasure of a good read.
An afterthought: It seems to me thhat te Harry Potter books got a lot more grownups comfortable reading YA lit in public, if YA is the right term for that series. I don’t expect to see many 45-year-olds toting around a Judy Blume page-turner, though.