Once, in graduate school, I argued with a professor regarding books and technology. He had taken the line that, one day, we would all read books on computers, possibly some sort of slate-type device, which we would carry around with us. I thought his pronouncement preposterous. Cell phones still a luxury for most, pagers took up the ubiquitous spot on everyone’s belt, hooking us all into the security of the now nearly-extinct landline, and I could not imagine this slate-type device he described, nor could I imagine sitting at the gargantuan desktop computer in my apartment and reading off the cold, grey screen, which could not venture with me to the park, or even down the hall, for that matter.
Then, a book’s physicality held as much responsibility for the impact of its text as the mere words on a page. I romanticized books as companions, fetishized the sandpaper feel of the pages in a dime-store paperback bought on-the-cheap in a second-hand bookstore. I loved the the dry, dusty musk of those old stores, of libraries, despite the havoc they wreaked on my allergies and sinuses. I lamented the problems faced by independent bookstores as they fought off the constrictor embrace of the Big Box stores — Borders, Barnes & Noble, the eponymous Books-a-million. The books, the physical objects themselves, stood for these things — a noble fight against the corporatization of our souls and the enshrining of independent thought in a world bent on making even its citizens homogenous commodities.
Ironically, nearly twenty years later, I myself have proven that professor right. I bought my wife one of these slate-type devices. E-readers having been around for awhile, I still insisted on the primacy of the printed word. However, my wife’s slate-type device fascinated me. She’d sit on the couch and surf the web while we watched TV. She’d use it to chat with friends on Facebook. It would prop itself up in the kitchen displaying whatever recipe she used that evening. Whenever I could, I stole it from her, sneaking so many moments of tablet time, it quickly became apparent that one device would not be enough for our household. So, on my birthday, she presented me with one of my own.
Like her, I spent the first few weeks surfing the web, or, ensconced on the deck within easy reach of our home’s wifi, I watched documentaries on Netflix. Then, I discovered reading on this device. I realized how many books I could store in it, my entire catalog with me at any time if I wished, but it took me awhile to revel in its true capabilities. Like my wife and I pausing a particular episode of Castle to research a guest star on IMDb, I could look up words, passages, or even characters of a particular book while reading. It possessed an internal dictionary, thesaurus, even web browser, with built-in options to search either Wikipedia or Google. Suddenly, I could see how many books one could dispense of while using such a device. I could even annotate passages, highlighted in one of many colors, and, with a little web magic, export those notes to Evernote for later use. Then, I remembered my undergraduate years and how just a few classes’ worth of English major paraphernalia could weigh one down.
I won’t lay claim to the title of Futurist; let’s just say I’m convinced. Too much the Romantic, I love pouring over pictures of the past, imagining the lives of people frozen in time crossing cobblestone or unpaved streets in the small towns and cities of my experience. However, I find no less interest, joy, and fascination in reading historical fiction, like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, off my slate-type device than I do from the printed page itself. Maybe I’m realizing the ultimate irony, re-living the past through a device hard to imagine within my own lifetime. Or, maybe I’m experiencing one of those Phillip K. Dick moments, where all of this information is right at my fingertips. Maybe the two are one and the same, and, sometimes, that scares me just a little bit.