My Life with Kindle

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Sometimes you just have to let the river carry you

When New Yorker magazine recently became available electronically, I immediately subscribed. I was atremble with excitement that first night I powered up my new Kindle Voyager e-book reader and clicked into the maiden issue. I stuck to my standard procedure of ignoring all the articles in favor of its exquisite, single-panel cartoons which have always been a welcome relief at the end of weeks that lately have been far too long.

Well, something curious happened. Several of the cartoons landed with a thud. The punchlines weren’t hitting, which elicited some serious head-scratching. What was going on here?

Oh, I had no problem finding the laugh in the medieval guard who chastised his buddy, “I’ve asked you not to use the siege tower to meet women,” and the Sumo wrestler 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 wheeled out of the operating room, muttering, “The doctor didn’t make it.” I just squinted at those. Then I missed more punchlines.

I thought, maybe there was fallout to funneling the magazine’s voluminous content into a six-inch window on a device that, well, actually, did balance quite nicely in the L-shaped crook of my fingers as I lay back in bed. 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 my plebeian taste, and discovered more surprise. I was engaged, grinning away, fully in, getting everything. Somehow the Kindle had shifted reality. How? The mysteries were multiplying.

Over the next nights, I fell hard for the little device, kvelling at the quality of its print-like 300-ppi e-Ink words. I tapped and swiped and read, and tapped and swiped and read more, discovering new pleasure in a wholly unexpected place: a small screen.

But there was deception in that display, I well understood. Sure, you knew a book or magazine was in there, somewhere — the same way you know the Himalayas are on the other side of the globe. But without the physical mass, experience was blurry and uncertain. Trust entered into the equation.

The magazine’s length was squirrelly and indeterminate. The number of pages swelled and receded depending on your choice of font. Content often seemed to be on the move, in flux, based on ever-changing options. Yet the words stayed exactly the same.

If a printed New Yorker was a mountain, the e-version was a river. A Kindle ad I saw quoted Steinbeck, “We do not take a trip; it takes us,” offering no help at all.

Wide-eyed, I tapped on. Who would have thought that 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 readers out in cyberspace? Or that it could reach up into the cloud to snatch sample chapters in other books and Wikipedia articles while helpfully denying you access to Facebook and email. Oh, technology! Oh product designers!

Finally, I figured out the cartoon mystery. The ‘toons, those welcoming islands of comic relief which had always been reliably afloat in the printed New Yorker‘s text-dense waters, were now grouped together at the end in the e-version, absent the familiar surrounding text, and therein lay the problem.

I had been compensating, albeit unconsciously, imagining the missing print around them, which had thrown me off my funny bone. The magazine’s traditional cartoon-copy balance had shifted. That distraction had tweaked me. Stubbornly I had been resisting the change. (And the Voyage’s sketchy graphics didn’t help either, honestly.)

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

I did manage that and more. I made peace with the e-New Yorker. In the past, I had often been awed by the lofty patina and brilliant writing in those pages which hinted at a wee smack of snobbishness. Even that had gotten its due. In this new reality, the mag had no choice but be more open and, well, accessible. It had been touched and altered by technology, forced to yield to the leveling force that came with being available at all times on a device.

Whatever next flows down the river carried on my Kindle, my eyes will be wide open for it. I’m ready for those e-surprises. Who knows what will happen when I tap into the first book in my queue, the 700+ page Anna Karenina, now as light as air. Tolstoy could never have imagined this. Nor anyone, just a few years ago. It’s just the future, in its indomitable, head-spinning way, shocking you out of your comfort zone and forcing you evolve, whether or not you want to. It’s just as it is and always has been.

Illustration by Kate Larson

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