Wednesday, April 29, 2009

With A Kindle, Can You Tell Its Proust?

I've long been on the record as favoring old-fashioned paper-and-glue books to their digital equivalents. I like the feel of a book in my hands, and the way I can, when I'm bored, go to my bookshelf and spend time with my friends, like Pennylane did with her record collection in Almost Famous. On Sunday, the New York Times ran a story about 'you are what you read' culture; the spectator sport of assigning personality traits to people based on what they're reading.

Remember the scene in Wonder Boys, when Grady Tripp and Terry Crabtree see a black guy with a pompadour hairdo, put their heads together and decide that the pompadoured man is the president of the James Brown Hair Club for men, that his name is Vernon Hardapple, he's addicted to painkillers, and has a younger brother named Claudelle and whose mother blames Vernon for Claudelle's death, because he was killed when a gangster named Freddy Nostrils killed his favorite horse, and Vernon was in on the hit? I do that all the time. Think, for instance, the characters you could make up for the douchey-looking beach muscle guy in Prospect Park sunbathing shirtless and reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, or the teenage black kid sitting in Starbucks, reading a Star Trek novel, or the conservative dressed lady with a nose ring reading the Torah, who doesn't get off when the 2 train stops at Grand Army Plaza? You could spent hours coming up with backstories for these people. Its one of the best parts about living in New York.

In a literate city like New York where everybody commutes by public transportation and coffee houses flourish, this judging of books by their covers is probably unavoidable. Who is Amazon, maker of the Kindle, to deprive us of that pleasure? Sure, some people read certain books in public because they want to present a certain image - Nicholson Baker's story makes him sound like a total douchebag. One is reminded of the Augusten Burroughs story about showing up for a blind date, seeing that the guy was carrying Remembrance of Things Past and being so turned off by the gauche lack of subtlety that he immediately wrote the guy off as a romantic prospect - but I think that Nick Hornby's theory holds true for the most part - you can tell a lot about a person by what they read, what they watch, and what they listen to.

I've never been the subject of 'literary desire,' the mysterious phenomenon described by Michael Silverblatt, but, like true love and justice and the Easter Bunny, its something I'd like to believe exists. Book culture is on its way out - on that, I think we can all agree - and little things like this need to be preserved, even if they sound corny, or sort of pretentious.

Thanks to Ellen at Wormbook for getting the ball rolling on this one.


John said...

Kindle would seem to eliminate those that read certain things to project a certain image (minus the image one projects from using a kindle in the first place). Hopefully this would mean that people will primarily read things that they earnestly have an interest in reading. As a counterpoint, I wonder how many books are refrained from being read because one doesn't want to project some stereotype from reading a certain book in public. How many men are too embarrassed to read Lolita on the subway and so never get around to reading it? This may be especially important since for many people public reading is basically the only reading they have time to do. Kindle would seem to eliminate this problem anyway.

Wade Garrett said...


That's a good point. Jake and I have actually discussed how we would feel awkward reading that book in public, and we 1) are avid readers, 2) generally don't give a shit what other people think of us, 3) both have copies of the book, and 4) do a lot of public reading. So maybe that tells you something.

Ellen said...

I guess the Kindle readers could find each other on the subway, but I've never seen more than one in the same place.

I did read though, John, that romance e-books are selling particularly well compared to other genres, suggesting some people might have the same concerns you have.