My Life with Kindle

kindle, surfing kindle
Sometimes you just have to let the river carry you

Recently I downloaded an issue of the New Yorker on my new Kindle Voyage e-book reader and something curious happened. As a reader of the print version, I’d usually page past the voluminous columns of articles in search of the single-panel cartoons. But now, I couldn’t help noticing that some of the ‘toons were landing with a thud. What was going on?

Oh, I had no problem grokking 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 and 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.” I just squinted at it. Then I missed a few more punchlines.

It was the Kindle, right?

Maybe there was fallout in funneling the magazine’s full content into a six-inch window on a device that, actually, did balance 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 a couple of graham crackers that could store every book I ever wanted to read.

I tapped over to the short fiction, which had usually been too highbrow for my taste, and had another surprise. I was fully in, grinning away. Somehow the Kindle had made the lofty accessible. How? I didn’t have a clue.

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

Sure, I saw the deception in that screen. You knew a book or magazine was in there somewhere, in the same way you knew the Himalayas were on the other side of the globe, but without the mass, it didn’t quite register. Trust became a part of the equation.

Even the magazine’s length was indeterminate and squirrelly. The number of pages swelled or receded based on my choice of font. And forget about the comfort of page numbers. They shifted, too. Kindle content is always on the move and in flux, depending on your display options. But the same time, it’s exactly the same.

If a printed New Yorker is a mountain, then the e-version is a river. And I was content to be carried along. Said one Kindle ad, quoting Steinbeck, “We do not take a trip; it takes us.” Indeed. The Kindle marketers were earning their pay.

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

Finally, I sussed out the cartoon mystery. The single-panel drawings, which had been like welcome islands in the New Yorker‘s text-dense waters, were all grouped together in the e-version, absent any surrounding text, and therein lay the problem.

I had been compensating, albeit unconsciously, imagining the missing print around them. That distraction had thrown me off my funny bone. Stubbornly I was resisting that the old context was kaput, that the cartoon-copy balance had shifted. (The Voyage’s sketchy graphics didn’t help, either.)

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 the corner of my office. Be thankful.

Over the weeks, I bonded with the e-New Yorker, while making more e-discoveries along the way. The device did in fact bring the magazine down to size. I’ll confess to at times being awed by the lofty patina and self-reverent nature of the New Yorker. Sometimes I could swear I was dealing with a snob, or a bully, who, now in new and unknown territory, had no choice but to be open and welcoming. Though the words hadn’t changed in the Kindle version, they’d been touched and altered by technology, forced to yield to the leveling force necessary to reside on a device.

I’ll tell you this: my eyes will be wide open for the next e-surprise. Who knows what’s in store when I tap into the first book in my queue, Anna Karenina, minus the heft and fitted to the small screen. 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 to force you to see things differently, to evolve, whatever you may think or want.

Illustration by Kate Larson
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Warren Goldie