Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This is painful

I know I'm a snarky bastard. But when I read some of these religion and culture columnists and see just how earnest they are about their silliness, it's really hard to not want to smack them.

Take Mark Oppenheimer, who's previously bemoaned the over-saturation of the Haggadah market and bitched about how Reform Jews should pray Tachanun because it would give them a sense of what it's like to feel vulnerable before God, "like the Catholic confession." Oh-Kay.

What's Mark sad about now? Kindles. Yeah. But not for the reason you think.
the Kindle is yet another step away from from old media like vinyl and paper. This matters to collectors and nostalgic types (of which I am one), but the really important issues raised by the new technology, the ones all of us face, are social and romantic. Simply put, our gadgets give us too much privacy.
Fine, Mark, I'll bite. Why is privacy bad?
One by one, the meaningful artifacts that we used to scatter about our apartments and cars, disclosing our habits to any visitor, are vanishing from sight.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent, and more serious, than in the imperilment of the Public Book—the book that people identify us by because they can glimpse it on our bookshelves, or on a coffee table, or in our hands. As the Kindle and Nook march on, people's reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view. We'll go into people's houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we'll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.
This is a delicate matter. I can already hear some readers turning the page (perhaps a Kindle "page"), muttering that only an elitist jerk picks friends or lovers based on what they can be seen reading. 
It's not elitist, it's just dumb. Among other things, it assumes that there's no filter between people's public and private reading. There are plenty of books I read about religion, sex, or war that I would never bring to my work, because I don't need any of that baggage. Hell, I've bought Bill O'Reilly books on occasion (granted, ten years after they went to print, and from a thrift store). When I go on interviews I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what books are acceptable so I don't come off too weird. I'm guessing I'm not the only one who's figured this out. On the "gathering intelligence" scale, you're better off asking the friends of the object of your affection what their interests are, not deciding you totally know them based on the fact that you saw them reading something that one time.
Well, maybe. This essay is for the rest of you, the ones who freely admit to having been seduced by a serendipitous volume of Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John glimpsed on a potential girlfriend's living-room shelf or by a spine-broken copy of Robert Lowell sitting atop that boy's nightstand. Maybe that was your first time in the apartment, you had been reluctant to go, and now you wanted to linger a while …
Mark, I'm really trying to be nice here, but you are coming off like the lamest guy ever (and I went to a "nerdy" college). All I can say is it's a good thing you're already married.

Not convinced? Fear not! Mark has some TMI stories about his early dating escapades to share. No privacy issues here!
When I was 22 there was the dazzling brunette who, weeks into the relationship, when I asked why she had agreed to a date, said, "I liked your books." In that first studio apartment, I had deposited a box of college reading I had never gotten to: my Oxford Study Bible, a book about Second Temple Judaism, and Awash in a Sea of Faith, a history of American religion. At a small party I threw, to which I had invited the few people I knew in town, she—dragged there by a friend—had been intrigued by these books sitting on that bookshelf. (Ikea, of course.)
Excuse me? So she decided she liked you based on books she saw in your apartment, books you had never even bothered to read. Yeah, I don't know how young people are going to be able to muddle through this crazy love thing without physical books on the shelves. How else are we going to impress the opposite sex into thinking we're smarter or deeper than we are?
When I was 26 there was the English teacher at the summer school where I was teaching who noticed my copy of Best American Essays 1996. Her face broke wide open, into a big, eager smile, and she said, "The page from Anna Karenina!" I knew exactly what she was talking about: a passage in Ian Frazier's essay "Take the F," one of the included essays, where he spots a torn page while walking along Carroll Street in Brooklyn, bends over, and discovers that it's page 191 of Anna Karenina. The next day, she slipped a copy of a different Ian Frazier essay into my faculty mailbox, and then books were exchanged, and so forth …
Books were exchanged, then fluids were exchanged. Got it.
And then came my bride. Early gifts from her: a paperback of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which she couldn't believe I hadn't read, and Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. Oddly, I gave her Our Guys, by Bernard Lefkowitz, about the high-school gang rape in Glen Ridge, N.J. I'm not sure what I was thinking.
Fair enough, I'm not sure what you're thinking now.
So what will you do, Kindle generation, when you cannot tell which of the quiet boys holding the e-reader on the subway is engrossed by the latest, predictable legal thriller, and which one by a cheery, long-forgotten Laurie Colwin novel? If by some chance you do end up with the right one, what do you buy him a month later, when it is time for that first, tentative, not-too-expensive present—a gift certificate for a free download?
How about a free punch in the nose?

Look, Mark, I also like giving books as gifts, and I also enjoy reading physical books, but of all the things to take a cultural stand on, this is really a silly one. Yes, common connections help you get the first date, but to single out books people read on the subway as the cornerstone of successful relationships is, I think, taking your Andy Rooney Jr. act a little too far. You're only 40, for God's sake! Besides, in a day of total media overload and over-sharing mania, I honestly don't mind people keeping a little something to themselves.
As a sign of civilizational decline, this is a minor matter. After all, love will always find its way. Even books, like romance, will live on. They will continue to be exchanged, and in fact their quaintness will only increase their value. When they are truly rare, to give one as a gift will imply the batted eyelashes. Books will, in short, suffer the fate that has already befallen letters sent by mail: preciousness.
You know what's not precious? This column. It's not entertaining, it's not clever, it's just odd.
Worse, they will no longer be that perfect lending object: inexpensive, plentiful, deeply felt. We'll look back fondly on a time when we had hundreds of these things, any one of which could, if she admired it, be stuffed in her backpack as she left. Or, if you weren't so generous, she could surreptitiously "borrow" it, then have an excuse to return it. Maybe she would give it back, maybe she wouldn't. Maybe she would find it a year later and have to hide it from another, newer arrival in her life. Maybe it would find its way back to you, left on your doorstep under cover of night, standing in for all the conversations that you and she were too cowardly to have.
Wow, it's like the literary equivalent of Lifetime plus saccharine plus a hammer to the temple. Sweet New York Review of Books.

Here's a tip, Mark: if you want to ensure that at least one book will never be made into a downloadable version, write one based on this terrible essay. It's bullet-proof.

1 comment:

Garnel Ironheart said...

Mark is completely missing the point. One can post one's book list and what book one is currently reading in one's Facebook account for everyone to see!