My Life with Kindle

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Sometimes you just have to let the river carry you

When New Yorker magazine became available for the Kindle e-book reader recently, I immediately subscribed. Powering up my new Kindle Voyager, I felt chills of excitement as I embarked upon that first e-issue, following standard procedure: ignoring all the mag’s erudite articles for the exquisite, single-panel cartoons, the height of drollery and a welcome relief in a too-serious world.

Well, something curious happened. Many of the ‘toons were landing with a thud—enough to elicit some serious head-scratching. Why was I missing the joke?

Oh, I had no problem finding the chuckle in the medieval guard chastising his buddy, “I’ve asked you not to use the siege tower to meet women,” or the Sumo wrestler bear-gripping his opponent while whispering, “Full disclosure—I really need this hug.” But I wasn’t sure about the guy telling his wife, “The utility bills for my secret other life are going through the roof.” Or the patient exiting the operating room, muttering, “The doctor didn’t make it.” I just squinted. I missed more punchlines.

Maybe there was fallout in funneling all that content into a six-inch window on a device that, actually, did balance quite nicely in the L-shaped crook of my fingers as I lay in bed reading. Which is why I’d bought the thing in the first place. No more weighty, flapping, dust-emitting pulp. Now I had something the size of four graham crackers that could store every book I would ever want to read.

I tapped over to the New Yorker’s short fiction, which had always been a little highbrow for me. I found more surprise. I was engaged, grinning away, getting everything. Somehow the Kindle had made the lofty accessible. How? I didn’t have a clue.

Over the nights, I fell hard for the Kindle, reveling in each print-like 300-ppi e-Ink word. I tapped and I swiped and read, and tapped and swiped and read some more, rediscovering reading in a wholly unexpected place: on a bitsy screen.

But there was deception in that display. Sure, you knew a book or magazine was in there somewhere — the same way you knew the Himalayas were on the other side of the globe. But without the physical mass, things felt skewed. Trust entered into the equation.

Even the magazine’s length was squirrelly and indeterminate. The number of pages swelled and receded depend on your font choice. And forget about the comfort of page numbers anchored to actual pages. That changed, too. Content seemed to be always on the move, in flux, dependent on options. But at the same time it was… unchanging.

If a printed New Yorker was a mountain, then the e-version was a river. And I was determined to enjoy the ride. One Kindle ad I saw quoted Steinbeck, “We do not take a trip; it takes us.” Indeed.

Wide-eyed, I tapped on. Who would have thought the turn of a page could be accompanied by a tiny vibration for a comforting hint of physicality (Did I just feel that?). Or that you could view the highlighted passages of other cyber-readers right there in your bed? Or that it could reach up into the cloud to snatch free sample chapters and Wikipedia entries while helpfully denying you access to Facebook and Gmail. Oh, technology! Oh product designers!

Finally, I sussed out the cartoon mystery. The ‘toons, those welcoming islands of laughter usually afloat in the New Yorker‘s text-dense waters, had been rearranged for the e-version. Now they were all grouped together at the end, absent the familiar surrounding text, and therein lay the problem.

I had been compensating, albeit unconsciously, imagining the missing print around them, the cartoon-copy balance shifted. That distraction had thrown me off my funny bone. Stubbornly I had resisted the change. (And the Voyage’s sketchy graphics didn’t help much, to be honest.)

The price of progress, I told myself. Relax. You’ve got a cool device, a mere $7.99 monthly subscription fee, and zero chance of adding to the stack of New Yorkers collecting dust in a corner of the office. Be thankful.

I did manage to make peace with the e-New Yorker as well. I will confess to, over the years, being awed by the lofty patina and brilliant writing that appeared consistently in the New Yorker’s pages. But there was a snobbishness, too. Even that got its due. Now, in this new cyberworld, the mag had no choice but be more open and … accessible. It had been touched and altered by technology, forced to yield to the leveling force that came with being available to all readers online, and to fitting on a device.

Whatever else happens, I’ll tell you this: my eyes will be wide open for the next e-surprise barreling down the river. Who knows what’s in store when I tap into the first book in my queue, the hefty, 700+ page Anna Karenina, now light as air. Tolstoy could never have imagined this. Nor anyone. It’s just the future, in its indomitable, unpredictable way, shocking you out of your comfort zone, forcing you experience things differently, whatever you may think or desire. Just as it is and must be.

Illustration by Kate Larson

Contact writer:

Warren Goldie