As I was saying early in January, I was almost through Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel Freedom—wow, what a Mississippi river of a book, churning with social criticism, human portraits, narrative power—when I dropped and broke my Christmas Kindle. In two days I was reading again, on a device officially known as “Richard’s 2nd Kindle,” rushed from the Amazon mothership. Since then I have read on it four more books: Franzen’s delicious memoir The Discomfort Zone; J.R. Moehringer’s hearty bestselling memoir of boyhood and drink The Tender Bar; Franzen’s book of impressive essays and reportage How to Be Alone; and genius John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, a model of elegant prose style.
I think I’m reading more with the Kindle, somehow. Maybe because I read while exercising indoors this winter, get further hooked by a book, and read it faster to finish it.
Maybe it’s just the novelty effect.
I’m uncomfortable with that possibility, just as I’m uncomfortable with aspects of the Kindle and love others. There was an electronically garbled passage in one book; sometimes spaces between words are removed. Being able to search is great, but paging through the book to get anywhere fast in it is a monumental pain. There must be a function that will whip me faster front to back, but I haven’t found it. This is another weakness, the need to learn the kinks of device to read. Books are warm, with life in them, so perfectly evolved a medium. I’m haunted by Robert Pirsig’s great line from his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The heart of technology is death.” One could say this applies to any tools—his insight flowed from the internal combustion engine, as I recall—but it applies especially to high technology like electronics and the apparatus of space travel.
The Kindle is so damn convenient, though, I felt like such a grouchy geezer. But then I began consciously to notice with Rabbit, Run the faint dotted underlining under great passages—what others have highlighted. Thus does the Kindle queer one’s reading experience: the world intrudes. But on the one hand this is great: I won’t miss the quotable lines every book reviewer, blogger, and reading braggart must have. On the other, it is one of reading’s pleasures to find such nuggets on one’s own, thus make them yours. On the other, that’s a young man’s vanity; I’m middle aged—which means only that old age hasn’t got me quite fully in its grip—and am slower to spurn help. Let me be clear about this, however: if like most people you dislike others’ markings and highlightings in a book, you will hate this feature.
The adumbrated underling reminds me of Amazon’s bullying suggestions that appear on my Kindle screen: Do I want to turn on my wireless connection? Hey, I’m saving juice here. Why have the thing on—so Amazon can know even more about me than it already does? No, thank you. Then I hopped into a passage that thrilled me partly for this idiotic reason: No one else has underlined it! Here, Rabbit has just left his wife and spent the night with a prostitute. Reading these very male truths I felt like a prospector splashing through a stream and seeing a gold nugget a hundred idiots have missed:
The thing about her is, she’s good-natured. He knew it the second he saw her standing by the parking meters. He could just tell by the way her thighs made a lap. With women, you keep bumping against them, because they want different things; they’re a different race. The good ones develop give. In all the green world nothing feels as good as a woman’s good nature.
Maybe, if I turn my wireless on, other e-buyers of Rabbit, Run will have my taste inflicted upon them. Not many pages later, I came across a line pre-underlined: “Funny, the world just can’t touch you once you follow your instincts”; it made me wonder how many dumb high school kids are using Kindles and flagging likely term paper fodder. That phrase isn’t portable—it’s just Rabbit’s stray subjective notion—but my line, well mine seems to be beating its blunt aphoristic wings hard enough to fly free of the harebrain. (Yet he’s not just some feckless guy who disgracefully leaves his pregnant wife and small child, impressions from many half-remembered reviews aside; rather, he’s one who runs in fear when he realizes he’s hurtling toward death with someone he doesn’t love.)
“We’re marching toward March,” I’ve been telling my freshmen, hardly believing it myself. Eliot had it wrong. It’s endless January that’s the cruelest month, good for reading though it was. Nothing remotely spring-like except a bird bravely singing a little at daybreak—why? Well, January is gone and good riddance. But February first and second the campus was shut down by ice. Then I blundered across another virgin passage in Rabbit, Run that reminded me of spring—it will come, and then summer, my best season—and it showed how wonderfully Updike could convey the way humans experience the physical world, not just each other, through a suffused scrim of emotion. Rabbit, still on the lam but employed by a dowager for garden chores, is out burning last season’s spent stalks and other brown detritus:
Sun and moon, sun and moon, time goes. In Mrs. Smith’s acres, crocuses break the crust. Daffodils and narcissi unpack their trumpets. The reviving grass harbors violets, and the lawn is suddenly coarse with dandelions and broad-leaved weeds. Invisible rivulets running brokenly make the low land of the estate sing. The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by dull red spikes that will be peonies, and the earth itself, scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under Heaven.