When New Yorker magazine became available for the Kindle e-book reader recently, I immediately subscribed. Powering up my new Kindle Voyager, I embarked upon that first e-issue feeling a mighty buzz of excitement, all the while proceeding undeterred with my standard procedure: ignoring all the magazine’s articles at the outset in favor of its 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. I wasn’t getting the jokes, which elicited some serious head-scratching. What was going on?
Oh, I had no problem finding the laugh in the medieval guard chastising his buddy, “I’ve asked you not to use the siege tower to meet women,” and the Sumo wrestler bear-gripping his opponent, 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 being wheeled out of the operating room, muttering, “The doctor didn’t make it.” I just squinted at those. Then I missed more punchlines.
Maybe there was fallout in funneling the magazine’s voluminous content into a six-inch window on a device that, well, actually, balanced 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 a few graham crackers that could store every book and magazine 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 taste, and discovered more surprise. I was fully engaged, grinning away, getting everything. Somehow the Kindle had shifted things, made the lofty accessible. How? I was determined to find out.
Over the next nights, I fell for my Kindle, reveling in each print-like 300-ppi e-Ink word. I tapped and I swiped and I read, and tapped and swiped and read some more, rediscovering reading in a wholly unexpected place: on a small 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 … uncertain. Trust entered into the equation.
Even the magazine’s length was squirrelly and indeterminate. The number of pages swelled and receded depending on the font choice. And forget about the comfort of page numbers anchored to actual pages. They changed, too. Content seemed to be always on the move, in flux, based on shifting options. But at the same time it was stable.
If a printed New Yorker was a mountain, then the e-version was a river. And I, for one, was fixed on taking the ride. A 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 in real-time as you yourself read? 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 reliably afloat in the printed New Yorker‘s text-dense waters, had been rearranged in the e-version. Now, they were 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 magazine’s precious, time-honored cartoon-copy balance had 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, man. You’ve got a pretty cool device, a low $7.99 monthly subscription fee, and zero chance of adding to the stack of New Yorkers collecting dust over there in that corner of the 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 that has always been consistent in the New Yorker’s pages. But I felt a wee smack of snobbishness there, too. Even that got its due. In this new cyberreality, 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 to all readers online and to fitting on a device.
Whatever else happens with my Kindle, I’ll say this: my eyes will be wide open for the next e-surprise coming down the river. Who knows what will happen when I tap into the first book in my queue, the 700+ page Anna Karenina, now light as air in the 21st Century. Tolstoy could never have imagined this. Nor anyone, even 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 experience things differently, whatever you may think or desire. Just as it is and must be.