Slate-Type Devices

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.


In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa. I had met authors before — after standing in lines to get books signed by them; as visiting writers at university, where a healthy distance and a microphone separated student from author during the Q&A; or, when I was in graduate school, at the professor-house parties, where informality ruled, fueled by friendship between the visiting writer and the professor/host. This interview, though, represented the first time I would have direct, professional interaction with a celebrated author, one whom I had studied; I could not shake the intimidation and awe in which this interview blanketed me. Also, I could not shake my fear of appearing underprepared; being a student of literature and creative writing, I did not have the journalistic chops and had never performed an interview. I feared I would appear an amateur, so I prepared my list of questions based on the reading I’d done of his work. During the interview, I did not have the gut instincts to delve into the more important of his responses; I blindly turned to the next question on my list or allowed my own interests to lead me down some patently obvious lane. In my ignorance, I missed the chance to follow his thought down an alley which has become an important one to me as a writer.

A child of the South, I found it impossible not to read and study Southern literature and one of its most exposited characteristics — Place. It lay, posed in the works of Southern authors I read, like a frog in Biology class, something to dissect and tease apart but not to manipulate for its own ends. Aware that Komunyakaa hailed from Louisiana, I posed what seemed the obvious question — had he found that images and impressions from his youth in the South had insinuated their way into his work? He answered:

Yes, I think so, especially in the book, Magic City, because that’s really about my childhood-adolescent experiences. But also I think what happens is that we, as people, internalize terrains and, consequently, those internalized terrains become psychological overlays for whatever we experience or even dream about later on.

At the time, I had been writing a series of poems, a fictional, serialized account of love gone bad, captured in snapshots of image and word, moment and action. Unconsciously, I had myself internalized the terrain of the small Mississippi town to which I had recently moved — smoky bars with peanut shells on the floor; curbsides on the town square late at night, concrete parking blocks still warm in the humid Summer air; the snake-sweet smell of woods in summer and musty leaf of winter. I had used all of these images to give the protagonist and denizens of my poems a landscape. Komunyakaa’s insight galvanized me. Place was not something in which an author planted his characters. Rather, in using the term Terrain, Komunyakaa’s response suggests to me something I had missed in my studies; the by-ways and highways in which characters lived, not merely inhabited, could tell as much about them as their own actions, could be every bit as much a character as them.

To this day, the work that speaks most clearly to me provides its characters that necessary Terrain. Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero protagonist of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine and Hogdogging, stomps and blazes his way across the windswept reaches of Southwestern Minnesota, Southeastern South Dakota, and any number of locales in between and beyond, in many ways every bit as barren as the landscape suggests. Likewise, in Tom Franklin’s Hell At The Breach, the claustrophobic woods and weedy creeks enliven the tensions between its characters. In this novel of chaos and feud, a bulwark of forest, known as the Bear Thicket, serves as more than the metaphorical boundary between Town and County; it swallows characters whole in its voraciousness.

Much more than simply Place, as I had misunderstood it in my youth, Terrain becomes as much a character in a story or poem as those that wander through it, feeding on the narrative force it provides, sometimes falling prey to it themselves. It is. It lives, it breathes, and it speaks volumes as I wade through it in search of the story taking place across it. For now, as a writer, the terrain that surrounds me, that exists within me, seems at once immense and rapacious. Sometimes it’s a wonder I can leave the house at all.