Kindle courtship 

I’m the type of ultra-practical traveler who packs one jacket and no umbrella if there’s less than a 98 percent chance of rain (even if it’s pouring when I’m headed out the door, I might still decide not to bring the umbrella.) If I think I can get away with it, I’ll bring one pair of pants (two if you count the jeans I’m wearing). I hate excess luggage, and since I usually use a duffel bag, and don’t check anything, I know that whatever I pack, I’m going to be hauling around for at least a few hours.

But if I’m going to have more than 12 minutes of downtime somewhere, I always pack a book. For a week-long trip, I bring multiple. When I went to Taiwan to see my parents last summer (for two and a half weeks), I brought nine books. And made my mom take me to the library. Three times.

It was only a matter of time before someone bought me a Kindle. Opening my Christmas present from my brother was a strange mix of excitement, gratitude, and overwhelming guilt. I love books! They are tactile and comforting (and heavy, yes) and smell like paper. They are physical symbols of the enduring power of literature, language, and the struggle to express the human experience with the imperfect tools that words and syntax are.

The Kindle is sleek and convenient and light (these are selling points, I suppose). As soon as I opened the box, I started sifting through the free books on Amazon, and I relatively instantly had five different short story anthologies and Jane Eyre packed into a less-than-6-ounce device. On which the Oxford English Dictionary comes standard. Drool.

I took my new toy on the bus to work the next day. It’s much easier to hold the Kindle in my lap, and my wingspan is smaller, since I don’t have to hold open a page and worry about my elbows being in other people’s business. I couldn’t really get into the free short story anthologies, though, because they were somewhat haphazardly arranged, and the chapter navigation wasn’t set up well. I switched to Jane Eyre. I didn’t like reading Brontë sans book smell. I reverted back to the O. Henry Prize Stories, 2003, (also free, thanks LA Public Library system).

Fast-forward a few weeks. I took the train to my aunt’s to celebrate Chinese New Year’s and brought a full load of laundry with me. Trade-off: no books! My computer was on, so I decided to throw a book onto my Kindle. I’ve been meaning to read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, but it was $11.99. I’m fairly certain I can get it used for $5, max. I bought The Patron Saint of Liars instead, since it was $3.99. The whole process took all of two minutes, since Amazon has steadily reduced the friction of digital consumerism by storing credit card information on user accounts.

I read at Union Station for a few h0urs. When I stood up, I slipped my Kindle into the front pocket of my hoodie. It was all seamless and wonderful. After a few chapters, I finally got into the narrative, finally became less aware of pushing buttons as I read.

So: I’m definitely sold on the Kindle for convenience while traveling, but I still don’t feel like I’m reading a book. Which is maybe a good thing … I guess? (Clive Thompson rails against skeumorphs in the February edition of Wired — no link! I read the article in print, OK?) Something essential about the immersive experience is missing. [Just spent a good 5-10 minutes trying to find a batch of photos from a summer program, to pull one of me sitting under a lovely Bryn Mawr tree reading, but I think I archived it on my external hard drive and deleted it off my laptop.]

Anyway, books. I like pages. I like being able to flip back and forth between the page I’m reading on and the sneaky forshadowy passage from three pages back. I like the feeling of pages. I love that the most common type of hardcover binding is called “perfect binding.” I like being able to jot sarcastic notes in the margins. With a pen. And I like being able to correct typos.* (I am not kidding.) I also love browsing through used bookstores, picking up books at random, and judging them by their covers, their wear, and an arbitrarily selected excerpt that I determine.

I feel a healthy dose of Luddite coming on,** and I am also looking for a book recommendation for my Kindle. (Something that is fiction, typo-free, and less than $5, the general going rate for used novels in excellent condition at my favorite used bookshop.) Le sigh.

* OK, also, speaking of typos: WTF, mate? There were so many errors in Patron Saint of Liars, including more than 15 instances of “I” being replaced with “1,” a randomly inserted colon, and missing end quotation marks. Is that a Kindle thing? There is one mistake in Bel Canto (also by Ann Patchett — read it!); “vial” is written as “vile.” I edited it in my friend’s copy which I may have decided to keep, sorry, Linh! I will buy you another!

** For serious, my cell phone died just before my brother bought me the Kindle, and dude at the Verizon store said that they couldn’t fix the battery port, since Samsung stopped making both my phone and the newer version that replaced it. At this point, I might as well get a damn iPhone, but I refuse to let the Internet rewire my brain! For now.

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exquisite (pt. 2) — rewrite

It’s hard to keep track of the date when you experience every day as an extended round of Russian roulette. A never-ending game, and with each daybreak, a new round begins. I measure out my temporal location in units of steps, constantly calculating distances to the next block, the next corner. Where do I run if someone tries something right now? How long will it take to get there? What about now? Where do I run if someone tries something?

Defining my actual location is an act of triangulation. Half a block up from that store I was harassed in last week, sixty-eight steps south of the dumpster with neatly tied bags of day-end bagels, two blocks east from where I decided that pretending to want a back-alley fuck was a smaller price to pay than losing my tenuous hold on my own belief that I could fend for myself out here.

The streets are no place for a pretty young lady like you. Why you hiding that smile? Hey, where you going? You need some company? Why you walking so fast, girl? Come here and have a good time.

Don’t ever forget it. Every day is a fucking struggle. It’s like a fucking contest from one block to the other: How many different stories and traps can you pack into one stretch of concrete? I could draw you a treasure map of the places that are least safe to be, but if you asked me to mark the X on the spot that’s the safest, I would have no idea where to place it.

You play these games constantly out here. But you gotta switch it up enough to keep yourself guessing. Some nights I curl up on a bench, drift off to a few hours of sleep letting myself believe that as long as I’m off the concrete, I haven’t hit bottom yet. Other nights, it’s just not worth the energy it would take to imagine that hard. On those nights, I find myself slumped against a wall, too defeated to stretch out, already feeling the stiffness of waking up cold a few hours later. Staying half-awake nights is a different kind of pretend, when I wrap myself in the blanket of a little sense of security, dreading the idea of being wrenched awake from a decent dream by the call of the reality waiting on the other side of my eyelids.

You know, worry isn’t a precise enough word. I have had more than enough time to ponder this: There isn’t one word powerful enough to capture the mix of fear and despair, the terror of not knowing the moment you’ll finally lose the battle against your wanting to throw it all down and just — stop. More than a few nights, I have forced myself to just kept walking, to push forward so it feels like I’m moving toward something, going somewhere.

I remember this one time in school, a science teacher told us all a story about sea glass, the way it gets tumbled smooth by the constant friction against water and sand. Rocks do it, too, in the ocean. They just get worn down and down, until they break into smaller rocks, then into tiny round pebbles polished by the crashing waves. How long you think that takes? I wonder if the rock ever questions if it’s worth it, the pain of being sanded down, having pieces of yourself rubbed away, never sure when the process finally stops. All those things we think are beautiful, they come from hardship: the pearl borne from an oyster’s pain, the diamond that started as a poor lump of coal going through hell. You don’t think about what all that takes, just romanticize the idea of being forged through fire. Maybe it’s not the triumph of spirit and will we tell ourselves it is. That oyster is just trying to protect itself, throwing up walls within its own flesh, because the shell failed to keep the intruder out. The oyster hardens from the inside out, like the diamond that shrinks in on itself, girding its heart against the overbearing pressure.

And the sea glass, catching the light just so in your palm, when did the pieces give up? At what moment did letting the world scrape away your skin become easier than fighting back? Now, they offer no hard edges to reach out and cling, they are tossed and buffeted by the waves, then thrown ashore for you to gather and remove. Those pieces of frosted beauty started as something else, as shards, and — before that, a long time ago — as a whole.

Is that what it takes, transformation? I wonder about the process, the lengths it will ask me to take. If I let the world keep chipping, grinding, smoothing, will I become beautiful again?

OP: “roulette, square, pebble, worry