Like many readers of the New Yorker, I start each new issue by zipping right past the magazine’s voluminous articles in search of its single-panel cartoons, seeking a bit of drollery at the end of a long week. Now, as a proud owner of a new Kindle Voyage e-book reader, I do all this onscreen. But something curious has been happening. A few of the ‘toons have been landing with a thud. I wasn’t getting the joke. Huh?
Oh, I had no problem with the medieval guard who chastised 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 coming out of surgery, saying, “The doctor didn’t make it.” I just squinted at those. Then I missed more punchlines.
It had to be the Kindle, right?
Maybe there was fallout in funneling the magazine’s content into a six-inch window on a device that, well, 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 a couple of graham crackers on which I 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 taste. I found another surprise. I was fully engaged, grinning away, totally getting it. Somehow the Kindle had made the lofty accessible. How? I didn’t have a clue, but I was determined to figure it out.
Over the nights, I fell for the cool 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 little 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, it didn’t quite register. Trust entered into the equation.
Even the magazine’s length was squirrelly and indeterminate. The number of pages swelled or receded based on my choice of font. And forget about the comfort of page numbers anchored to actual pages. They changed, too. The Kindle’s content seemed to be always on the move, in flux, dependent on options. But at the same time it remained the same.
If a printed New Yorker was a mountain, then the e-version was a river. And I was content to be carried along. One Kindle ad I saw quoted 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 the turn of an electronic page could be accompanied by a tiny vibration for a comforting hint of physicality (Did I really feel that?). Or that you could view the highlighted passages of other cyber-readers on your device? 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 problem was that the ‘toons, those welcoming islands afloat in the New Yorker‘s text-dense waters, had been rearranged in the e-version. Now they were all grouped together one after another, absent the familiar surrounding text, and therein was 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 had resisted change. The cartoon-copy balance I’d known so well had shifted. (And the Voyage’s sketchy graphics weren’t helping 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 a corner of the office. Be thankful.
I did manage to make peace with the e-New Yorker, while collecting more discoveries along the way. 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 snobbishness there, too. Now, in this new cyberworld, amid undiscovered territory, the mag had no choice but be more open and … accessible. Though its content hadn’t changed, it had been touched and altered by technology, forced to yield to that leveling force. This art, now, existed on a device.
In any case, I’ll tell you this: my eyes will be wide open for the next e-surprise that is sure to come. Who knows what will be in store when I tap into the first book in my queue, the 700+ page Anna Karenina, minus the heft and fitted to the screen. Tolstoy could never have imagined this. Nor anyone. It’s just the future, in its indomitable, unpredictable way, shocking us out of our comfort zone, forcing us experience things differently, whatever we may think or desire. Just as it is and must be.