Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Frustration and Relief in the Penny Press!

Since I'm fairly prompt and fairly consistent with my icy glares, most of my friends have stopped asking me if I've yet acquired a Kindle from Amazon. Those friends have now moved on to a question almost as annoying and no less illogical: have I yet read Nicholson Baker's New Yorker article on how he acquired a Kindle from Amazon?

Well, since reading that article a) doesn't cost me the price of a month's rent, and b) doesn't involve a basic betrayal of everything I've stood for since 1520, I can actually get around to answering the second question. After all, I read The New Yorker virtually every week (it used to be 'religiously' every week, but ever since major non-industry magazines started indulging in 'Fashion Issues,' I've stopped indulging in blind loyalty - virtually nothing will elicit an icy glare from me faster than a gallumping old dowager like The New Yorker springing for a Fashion Issue) anyway, so Baker's article would have come across my path eventually (it's late crossing my path this week only because I was waiting for a certain young acquaintance to finish reading the issue so I could 'borrow' it - but since he's only just finished lip-moving his way through Talk of the Town, I went ahead and sprang for the issue myself).

Why those friends of mine were so eager for me to read this particular piece on the Kindle, as opposed to any of the other gazillion that have appeared, is a bit of a mystery to me. From the tone of their questions, I got the impression they somehow think I like Nicholson Baker, that he and I are simpatico somehow, that there'll be a fun and intimate correlation between his reactions to exploring the world of the Kindle and my own reactions. I'm not sure where this imagined correspondence comes from; to the best of my knowledge, Baker has never written a single book, fiction or nonfiction, that I even remotely liked - even merrily drunk, I've never expressed a sneaking admiration for his prose style or command of subject. Maybe it's just as simple as that he professes to care about books, and so do I.

Anyway, I finally read his article - and it was dismaying as all Hell. He starts out with the usual fey pose of wary detachment ("this object arrived today in the parcel post" .... etc.), talks a lot about the design flaws and aesthetic shortcomings of the Kindle and other devices designed to simulate the experience of reading a book, and in the end champions a twist in the tale I, for one, didn't see coming (I won't spoil it, since that aforementioned acquaintance will be getting to the end of this article sometime in 2010, and I wouldn't want to ruin it for him). Electronic reading receives no blanket condemnation in Baker's article - indeed, although he never comes right out and says it, he makes it pretty clear he views electronic reading as the inevitable fate of all reading. Which is a thought (expressed in a blog, yes, I'm aware of the irony) I abhor, of course.

But it was one glancing paragraph that really stopped me, a point where Baker is discussing some of the limitations of the Kindle:

Here's what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon ... Kindle books aren't transferrable. You can't give them away or lend them or sell them. You can't print them. They are closed clumps of digital code that only one purchaser can own. A copy of a Kindle book dies with its possessor.

Doesn't really invoke the communal, infectious glory of the world of books, does it? Half an hour after reading Baker's article, I was happily sorting through used books I intended to buy at dirt-cheap prices, all books previously owned and perhaps loved by somebody else, and half an hour after that, I was either handing some of those books to new owners or mailing them to prospective new owners - and to put it mildly, I was having a great time. The Kindle and devices like it reduce books to mere text, to raw data - and the dismaying thing about these devices is how popular they are (the sales figures Baker quotes are staggering). It turns out that books have very likely always been raw data to most of the people who read them, and that's a sad and sobering thing to think about.

Not that I can't imagine an electronic book that I'd personally like - far from it, a version of that ideal alternative is briefly alluded to in Baker's article. My ideal electronic book would be a book, first of all: it would have a spine, a flexible front and back cover, and pages (at least four, anyway). Its power source would be a battery-stick that slides unobtrusively up into its spine, and that power source would last a very, very long time (in fact, I'm sure there's a way to link it to micro-photovoltaic panels embedded in those flexible covers, thus recharging the thing whenever it's exposed to light). The contents would be delivered to the book electronically (through a quick download at the library, I'd prefer), but once they were delivered, they'd be cut off from the outside world, manipulable only by me (stories of Amazon being able to reach into every Kindle on Earth and summarily remove an edition of a book whenever they choose ... well, such stories hardly make for comfortable reading, do they?). And I'd be able to manipulate the hell out of that text - underline, make margin notes, move footnotes from one edition of 'The Tempest' to another, cut and paste my own preferred illustrations, etc. And unlike with the Kindle, nobody would be able watch me do any of those things - the changes would be happening in my electronic book and nowhere else.

I'm not so much of a Luddite I don't drool at the prospect of such a device. An object that preserves the spine-handling and page-turning of paper-pulp books, but that has infinite options? So I could build my absolute ideal, say, "Paradise Lost" from a) the best text, b) the best annotations, and c) the best illustrations (right now, each of those things is attached to a separate edition)? The book equivalent of a mix CD - or even better, the book-equivalent of a blog? That would be wonderful beyond description. Having my entire library in that one sturdy, intuitive device (even if I kept a hundred actual physical books around, for old time's sake)? That would be wonderful. But that's not the Kindle, and the fact that so many thousands of consumers think what the Kindle is works just fine is dismaying.

When I turned to the latest issue of Men's Journal, I expected a certain undercurrent of dismay to follow with me. After all, although Men's Journal very often publishes fantastic, thoughtful articles, they're also a magazine that panders to a particular stratum of stupid young white American men - a stratum I absolutely hate, since they're not honestly dumb ... these are young men making a lot more money than they need who consider themselves intelligent, even clever, and who make that consideration explicitly and exclusively on competitive grounds.

In other words, it's a magazine for douchebags.

(The fact that every issue is absolutely LADEN with adds for cigars and cigarettes doesn't help any, either - although there IS something faintly comforting about the thought of so many douchebags acquiring unquittable wastingly fatal addictions)

And I was right: this issue contains its usual quota of really good writing, and it also contains an incredibly frustrating article on what a kick-ass awesome guy accessory a dog is. Sigh.

Bill Gifford writes the main little piece, called "Your Dog: A User's Manual" even though it covers virtually no aspect of living with a dog (and deepens the dismay by referring to these living beings as though they were items of gear like the stuff that fills the ad-space of the issue). One aspect that's given lots of attention is where you get your dog (magazines like Men's Journal always do this - they know their target audience is almost entirely concerned with the acquisition part of any new experience ... after which, boredom almost immediately sets in) - pet stores can be nefarious, we're told, and the Internet is rife with scams - so you'd better line up with a reputable breeder and put your name on a 2012 litter of puggles! Yeesh.

Animal shelters all across this country are killing record numbers of abandoned dogs every month (in shelters in the South, they're often stuffed into gas chambers 15 at a time - but for cost-cutting reasons, the amount of gas pumped in at each killing would only be quickly lethal to 5 or 6 dogs - thus guaranteeing all of those dogs a protracted, agonized death), but what are we told about the prospect of adopting one of those abandoned dogs? "Adopting a pre-owned pup from a shelter is a great option, but finding the right match can be tricky." Translation: Dude, it'll take, like, mad amounts of time! You wanna be shreddin' it with your dog, like, today!

And of course, wherever two or more of you are gathered in the name of speaking nonsense about dogs, there too shall Cesar Milan be: he's referred to as "the Dr. Phil for dog owners" (I'd actually agree with that entirely), and he gives five tips for prospective dog owners. True to form, the tips are either self-evident (walk your dog, we're helpfully told) or ridiculous ("reward the good, ignore the bad," we're told - if your dog does something wrong, just ignore it, don't acknowledge it at all ... just reward the good behavior, and you'll be fine. Yeesh. A word to all you prospective dog-owners out there: if you do this, your dog will learn one message and one message only from it: that he'll be praised for the good things he does - and that he can get away scott-free with all the bad stuff he feels like doing. If that sounds ideal to you, let Cesar show you the way ...)

I had to get all the way to the very end of this issue of Men's Journal - to the very last page - to have my spirits lifted, but it happened! The last page features a 'Survival Skills' interview they do with a different celebrity each month, and this time around it's aging tough-guy actor James Caan, and his answers are sheer delight. I'll quote two choice ones:

Q: What should every man know about women?

A: They're fucking nuts.

Q: What article of clothing should every man own?

A: What kind of fucking question is that?

Ah ... sweet, sweet relief ....


Sam said...

Caan had one of the all time great Simpsons cameos, in Bart's treehouse sip-and-quip:

Caan: Bart, Mrs. Krabappel and me are going to go back and uh, play some, uh, backgammon, if you know what I mean.
Bart: I don’t, but I hope you win.
Mrs. Krabappel: Oh, he’ll win.

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