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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The best books I never read, cont.*

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I feel like I should apologize for blogging relatively infrequently of late, but I don’t have a strong sense of whether people are checking for updates or are just following links from Facebook and Google+. I’ve been working on a short story and just did a book review of Tim O’Briens The Things They Carried for … Continue reading

The best books I never read

“… strong texts tend to become so familiar, even to people who have never read them, that they become part of what exists, at least a distort of them does. It is very strange to read something supposedly familiar, The Gospels, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, and to find that it is quite unlike our mental version of it. Without exception, the original will be as unsettling, as edgy as it ever was, we have learned a little and sentimentalized the rest.”

— Jeanette Winterson, “Writer, Reader, Words” in Art Objects

On Saturday night, my friend Lorena and I started discussing books we haven’t read, and I was reminded of this quote (which I had recently rediscovered while flipping through old journals — I copied the entire passage I linked to above by hand). Specifically, Lorena was worried about reading Brave New World, because she was worried it wouldn’t live up to her expectations. Still, she had a sense of what the book was about, which was what reminded me of Winterson’s argument that familiar books become part of what exists — and as I was describing it, I mentioned the idea of works seeming less edgy once they become part of societal context instead of challenging or upending it, which, actually, is not what Winterson said, so when I reread the quote while typing, it was all meta and performative and mind-blowing.

As I mentioned before, and will blog about more in-depth … sometime, I just finished reading “The Most Human Human,” which I’d been meaning to check out since Brian Christian did an interview about it on “The Daily Show,” which aired on March 8. Before I read the book, the idea of the Turing test was rolling around in my brain for months, especially in relation to research/philosophizing I was doing about social media in relation to job applications.

I think the concept of not being able to unknow things is incredibly fascinating (in the same way that I think the concept of wanting to go back and change the past is bizarre, since every random moment in the past influences the present moment, and it’s impossible to know what else would be different).** Think about all of the books you haven’t read that you still consider familiar,*** or the pleasant shock of discovering that a text you thought was familiar was unsettling. As I was applying for master’s programs in comparative literature about two years ago, I had a long conversation with an assistant vice provost from UCLA about my romanticization of literate culture in England; I love the idea of culture being steeped in texts (and served with crumpets), as when I went to breakfast at my mom’s cousins place in Felixtowe, and a first edition of Great Expectations was just chilling next to the toast rack and very cheddary scrambled eggs.

That may also be why I love books about books and writers who write for readers, like Jasper Fforde and his Thursday Next series, which I think are enjoyable whether or not the reader is extremely well-read, but truly understanding and catching all the references requires a fairly deep knowledge of literature.****

I think another way to interpret my headline, “The best books I never read,” though, is to think about some of the classics I read in elementary and middle school when I was largely reading for plot. I think if I went back and reread them, I would experience that same unsettling feeling to find that old-school writers really just were that edgy with their quill pen and inkwell badassery.

* Coincidentally, I was disappointed by the second half of that book, because I’d read the beginning when my older cousin brought it with her on vacation, but I didn’t finish it before she left. I never got around to checking it out of a library, so I didn’t read the second half of the book until my sophomore year of high school. During the intervening three years, the ideas of human engineering to maintain societal castes rolled around in my mind (and “The Matrix” came out, etc.), and I was really excited to finish the book, but didn’t really enjoy it as much as I had expected to.^

^ I now have no way of knowing whether I would have enjoyed the ending more had I not had such high expectations, or whether I would still have been disappointed and that would have tinged my view of the opening.

** Tangential thought: I love re-reading books, and am firmly in the “you can’t reread a book” camp, since you bring your context and environment and mood with you with each “re-reading.” I read Maniac Magee about once a year after first reading it in elementary school, and at some point in late high school or college, I teared up at Grayson’s death, the first time I cried while reading that book.

*** For example, earlier in the evening during which I had that conversation with Lorena, someone asked us to name the book and author from whence the quote “The only people for me are the mad ones.” I guessed “a beat poet,” then Kerouac, then On the Road. (I’ll get around to reading it soon, I’m sure.)

**** Incidentally, I love that Lemony Snicket makes similar references in A Series of Unfortunate Events (cf. Sunny Baudelaire’s “gibberish,” e.g. throwing around Latin roots or calling Count Olaf’s ambiguously gendered henchperson “Orlando”).