In New York City (can’t speak for the other metro systems across this great land), every subway car is a rolling library, every ride an opportunity to spy on the reading tastes of fellow passengers and make snap judgments that probably wouldn’t hold up in court. Single women in their 30s and 40s gripping a teenage-vampire tale or a Harry Potter—they seem to be hanging out a surrender flag. Those parading the latest Oprah selection might as well honk like geese. Then there are those who defy stereotype. A tall, straw-thin model glides into seated position and extracts a copy of concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning from her bag, instantly making an onlooker (me) feel rebuked for assuming she was vacuous and self-centered based on her baby-ostrich stare. In the same car is another, older woman—do men not read anymore? (Seinfeld’s Jerry, defensively: “I read.” Elaine: “Books, Jerry”)—holding up a Kindle at an angle to catch the light. Unless you were an elf camped on her shoulder, what she was reading was hoarded from view, an anonymous block of pixels on a screen, making it impossible to identify its content and to surmise the state of her inner being, erotic proclivities, and intellectual caliber. She might be reading Alice Munro, patron saint of short-story writers, or some James Patterson sack of chicken feed—how dare she disguise her download from our prying eyes! And reading an e-book on an iPhone, that’s truly unsporting. It goes the other way as well. How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?
(the rest of the essay talks about how similar things have happened with the digitalization of movie and CD collections). James Wolcott is not the first to generalize about America on the basis of life in New York City – a city which to my mind is completely irrelevant to American literature. Here in Houston everybody goes around in cars. It is rare to see a Houstonian casually carrying a book around – ok, maybe doctor’s office and airport lounges. But at doctor’s office, infomercials on TV make it nearly impossible to read anyway. At airports, you can read to the lovely sounds of CNN Headline News and acid reflux drug commercials. If actually ran into someone in this city with a book in his hand, I would die of amazement.
(Houstonians have books and read them; but the books stay safely inside people’s homes. Houston is a city with unbearable summer heat, no mass transit to speak of and few public spaces conducive for reading).
Wolcott is correct to note that people now communicate their taste by the gadgets they adorn themselves with (and that ties in with conventional critiques of American materialism). But Wolcott overlooks the amount of sharing and signaling that already occurs online. See my librarything profile! See my favorite books on my facebook profile! See my recent reads on my blog! Complete strangers (I hope) are glancing at these data points and revising their estimations of me (or knocking off points for omissions). Some people prefer keeping these things private, but what happens when people share not only live journals but GPS coordinates? Cyberutopians wax poetic about a time where a cell phone could locate people with similar interests (overlooking knotty privacy concerns); maybe it is a good thing to discover that the woman on the next aisle on the supermarket is a 1)knitting fanatic, 2)a voracious reader of vampire romances, 3)self-help junkie and 4)Palin Republican blogger. Or is it? Should I eagerly await the time when before I order lunch, a bellboy confesses that he enjoyed reading my post about breakfast tacos.
Ok, that’s a far-fetched scenario. And people already have information overload to deal with; nobody really has time to care about the interests of random strangers; it’s hard enough keeping up with twitter updates of friends. Also, in meatspace there is a new chat protocol—it’s called face-to-face conversation. Commenting on this promising new technology, Charles Dickens writes:
O, what a thing it is, in a time of danger and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face! I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph. I admire machinery as much is any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us. But it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true. Never try it for that. It will break down like a straw.
See also: Matt Yglesias’s discussion.