On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader. Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend. It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile. I have my hands all over the screen every day. I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.
I told everyone recently that I didn’t need a new one. “What do we need with all this new electronic crap?” I was haunted by images of e-waste I saw in a 60 Minutes story in 2008: computers, phones and other electronic devices burning in a dump in China where old computers and other electronic devices were sent to be “recycled.” One expert told Scott Pelley that these devices leak toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, polyvinyl chloride.
I was horrified. I want to make my e-things last.
But then my e-reader broke, and I had to replace it. Call it Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony Reader: all of them are genies.
On Saturday, while my driver listened to Bob Dylan on the radio, I clicked on my e-reader and looked at the screen. My device informed me that the temp was 36 degrees, and that on the basis of recent library activity, which it semi-literately refers to as “picked for you based on recent library activity,” I might enjoy James Salter’s Burning the Days or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
I am indulgent of my e-reader’s faults, such as recommending books I already have, like Smith’s book, one of my favorite novels. It is like having an encounter with a bookseller. I might appreciate Burning the Days.
Suddenly the screen dulled to gray because of the glare. At first I wasn’t sure what was happening. Then I realized, “It’s so smart! It’s making it easier for me to read.”
Here is a short digression about my reading. You probably think I was reading Disraeli’s Sibyl, or some other obscure 19th-century text available for download free from Project Gutenberg.
No, I was reading a new book I could just as easily have found at a bookstore: Caitlin R. Kiernan’s strange, lyrical, fantasy-cum-psychological novel, The Drowning Girl.
Did I feel guilty that I hadn’t bought the paperback? Not on the journey. I was too fascinated by the poetic voice of the heroine, Imp, who is schizophrenic, like her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt, and who is writing a ghost story, about ghosts of mermaids and wolves.
She says: “Sure, I’m a crazy woman, and I have to take pills I can’t really afford to stay out of hospitals, but I still see ghosts everywhere I look, when I look, because once you start seeing them, you can’t ever stop seeing them.”
I was guilt-free about my e-reader until we arrived in Iowa City and browsed at independent bookstores. Why wasn’t I supporting Murphy-Brookfield Books, Prairie Lights, or Iowa Book & Supply? Well, they’re too far from home. I order books online, books or e-books, because they are not available at physical bookstores in my city, where at least 12 independent bookstores have closed since the ‘90s.
Back in the car, after buying a book, I immediately loved my e-reader again. THE SCREEN LIGHTS UP IN THE DARK. I could read my e-book in the car. I had to wait to read my paperback till I got home.
E-readers have their disadvantages. At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a study tells us that most e-readers have the capacity to track our searches and monitor our reading habits. We mostly ignore that.
Lulling us with e-readers and computers, encouraging us to post our thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, is fun for us, but great for surveillance, should it come to that, and provides employers with data to fire employees or information for divorce lawyers to prevail in court. In a strange kind of way, it also prepares us for the apocalypse, not Triffids, as in my favorite science fiction book, The Day of the Triffids, but perhaps for The Day of Climate Change. We are indoors so much–except in Kindle ads–that we should be less panicky if it comes to the point where we can’t go outdoors.
Meanwhile, our e-devices are our friends. My e-reader is a female friend. Does anyone else have a feeling like that? And we sincerely hope our e-things will never jeopardize us.
Carpe diem while we can!