Kindle (& Updike) redux

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.


Filed under emotion, fiction, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading

15 responses to “Kindle (& Updike) redux

  1. We have lots more stuff and lots more room for it these days. The LP went to CD and then, testing the limits of invisibility, the ether of the MP3. You only need a teeny device to play it. Every CD I still listen to is in iTunes, the CD sold or stored in a box.

    Yet I’m a stubborn bookworm. I have four bookcases in my dining room–full. I have one in my daughter’s room, one in the guest room, one in the bedroom, one in the bathroom, and an entire perimeter of an attic lined with bookcases. They hold books I haven’t opened in decades, some I use regularly, some I’ve never read, some I loathe. I can’t throw away/recycle/give away books, and I can’t stop buying them.

    Why do we let our music collection increase in size without increasing in space, but we won’t stop our books from burying us alive?

  2. theexile

    It’s that whole 1984-ish marketing that bothers me about the Kindle and its relationship to Amazon. Isn’t it enough that we get marketed to constantly when we’re online? Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have voice about the Kindle since I don’t own one and have no intentions to do so in the near future?

    • To the contrary, you have every right to comment. You don’t have to own something to know it’s not for you! I’m conflicted and on the fence, but trying to tell everyone the pros & cons I wish I’d been informed about, or had the sense to imagine.

  3. I actually like others’ markings, notes and highlightings in a book (provided it’s a true reader, not someone skimming for a course), especially if its someone I know. The notes and highlights show me their brain, their heart, and what rings their bell. However, having underlinings from the hive mind is a huge turnoff to me, and I appreciate you mentioning that feature of the Kindle.

    Mostly, though, I enjoyed reading the way you wove your own reflections about aging into this post. I’ve started a page on my regular blog that I’m calling “Ten Little Years” to explore my own passage from 60 to 70. Whew. I must be nuts.

    • Beth,
      The other thing I should have mentioned was that I didn’t like Updike when I was young but now am in awe of him. What you are doing seems healthy, going at aging directly, and potentially very productive for a writer. Gets it out there so you, and others, can look at it. Otherwise, I at least tend to focus on loses rather than gains, such as being better able to manage one’s own craziness and to forgive others’. I am looking forward to visiting Switched at Birth to read your new feature!

  4. richard moore

    Thanks for your great service of letting us in on what this spooky e-reader world is all about–especially the 800 lb gorilla, Kindle/Amazon. Hard to know where else to turn for such intelligent and honest reporting of experience.

    Thanks, too, (even more) for reminding me of the beauty and psychological insights of Updike’s writing. The clause about Rabbit realizing that he is “hurtling towards death with someone he doesnt love” has given me an understanding about the underpinnings of a memoir piece I have been struggling with.

    I hope you will continue to provide your valuable postings.

    • Thank you for commenting, Richard. I couldn’t see doing a full review of Rabbit, Run—it’s like fifty years old—but had to note it—what an inspiring book it is.

      As much as Rabbit, but in a different way, more in sheer unfolding narrative brilliance, Franzen’s recent Freedom wowed me. But it’s almost too big for me to review; I don’t know where to start. And while it was praised to the skies in the Times, and Franzen was canonized for it in Time, so many regular readers hated it that on Amazon that they brought down the rave reviews to a fair rating of only three starts. I had three friends read it and two loved it and one hated it.

      What the experience taught me is how differently everyone responds; and how, in a sense, big reviewers are compromised. I have no doubt the NYT review was genuine, but imagine being in that catbird seat with great power over a novel a guy spent nine years on and a publishing house committed to (and is trying to woo with it a tiny minority of Americans). It would make me pull in my horns, or doubt myself, especially knowing that, for some, a book I hated would be just their cup of tea. Freedom I truly loved, even more than Rabbit, Run, except for the latter’s language, but don’t know how to discuss except with those who’ve read it.

  5. Lori

    There are many things about the Kindle that I don’t like, most particularly its connection to Amazon. I don’t like that someone will know what I’m reading, when I read, how many pages I read at a time, and all the other data bits that Amazon is collecting to (I think) someday offer up to publishers as useful marketing data. Oh how the world of publishing may change when/if this happens. I also happen to love (and work for) independent booksellers who now offer book downloads via Google ebooks on most of their websites. They download to any e-reader, except of course the Kindle.
    Interesting research recently released shows that the 45-55 age group is the largest growing segment of the ebook market and most young people eschew ereaders–they already have too much time spent in front of computers and their devices are for socializing, not reading. This warms my heart and makes me think there’s a long-term future for the book.

  6. David Bailey

    Maybe you mentioned this, but can’t you turn the “underlining” function off? Surely you’re not compelled to buy a book filled with what other people think is important?? I think you can tell that I won’t buy a book that someone else has marred with their underlining and breathless pronouncements, but maybe that’s the former librarian in me, eh?

  7. I read books on the Kindle for iPhone app, and I’ve found that I’m reading a LOT more than I was when I only read print versions of books. I, too, am very uncomfortable with that fact, while at the same time relishing how much reading I’m getting done. It’s a strange paradox.
    Re: your previous response, I think you can turn off the “most popular” hightlights. You can on Kindle for iPhone, anyway.
    I find them kind of fascinating, actually.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. Today another friend mentioned that the faint underlining can be turned off, he thought. But after mostly complaining about it, I’m not quite ready to do that! Basically I like the Kindle, I really do, and it turns out for once this isn’t the youngest crowd’s medium, so I feel kinda with-it using it, too.

      Now, you must post-AWP posts on Fog City Writer! The thing is so huge and diverse, I at least am hungry for many takes on it.

  8. Olga Khotiashova

    In my uncertain circumstances, I set a restriction on buying books – not more than two per year. It made the game of choosing even more thrilling. My first choice for this year was The Oxford Book of American Poetry , 2006 edition. I found in it all classic poems I was bumping at last summer while trying to understand American Poetry. Moreover, the book also includes an ample collection of contemporary poetry which appeared to be surprisingly appealing. What a bliss to hold this book, feel its pleasant heaviness, turn over the pages printed on nice paper in fine print, or just open randomly and read one or two poems. Kindle will never substitute it.

    • What a great story and policy, Olga. I admire your discipline. I am trying to use the public library more myself, especially since Kindle books are not a bargain, newer releases anyway. And the Kindle indeed can never replace a physical book.