Monday, April 27, 2009

Ego and the e-reader or Viva la ABBA

So, book snobs are fretting that the emergence of the Kindle and other e-readers may diminish the joys of reading and damage the publishing industry. (I know this, because I read Joanne Kaufmann's article "With Kindle, can you tell it's Proust?" this morning in the New York Times...on my Kindle.) They also lament that the new bit of Amazon technology is making it hard to judge folks on what they're reading in public.
 
Please, they're overlooking the really important concern: How will the Kindle affect literary snobbism? If you have 1,500 books on your Kindle — that's how many it holds — does that make you any more or less of a bibliophile than if you have the same 1,500 books displayed on a shelf? (For the sake of argument, let's assume that you've actually read a couple of them.)
 
The practice of judging people by the covers of their books is old and time-honored. And the Kindle, which looks kind of like a giant white calculator, is the technology equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. If people jettison their book collections or stop buying new volumes, it will grow increasingly hard to form snap opinions about them by wandering casually into their living rooms.
 
"I always notice how many books there are on the bookshelves, and what the books are," said Ammon Shea, who spent a year reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary and published a book about it. "It's the faux-intellectual version of sniffing through someone's medicine cabinet." Read more...
 
Unlike many of the eye-rolling from NYT online commenters, I'm going to assume this article was written with a bit of a wink--a nod to something we all do a little bit. That is, judge other people by their preferences, or rather, the relation of their preferences to our personal view of acceptable. I admit to doing a little internal eye-rolling myself when the friend of a friend implored me to read the Twilight series. An abstinence-preaching, vampire romance for tweens? Surely you jest! And I think less of your intellect for your having suggested such a thing! Of course, the first book I finished on my Kindle was comedian Russell Brand's "My Booky Wook" and I'm currently listening to the last installment of Kim Harrison's supernatural fantasy series "The Hollows" on my iPod. So maybe, y'know, I shouldn't be so smug.
 
It's hard when you fancy yourself a connosssieur of a thing. When you're really into something, you know what has expert approval--what you should enjoy--and what other x-philes scoff at--what you should avoid. My loves are books and music. I know, for instance, that having Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" or Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" on my iPod will put me in better critical stead than, say, owning Ace of Base's greatest hits. On the literary front, I know the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao" (currently on my Kindle, waiting to be read) gives me more cred than the latest Mary Higgins Clark. I know these things, and I know that other snobs know them too...and they are watching.
 
Still, there is no accounting for taste. And enjoyment of music or the written word is no fun if you have to be governed by what other people think you should like. No matter how high-falutin' your literary and musical diet, surely you must make room for a little sugary confection now and again. Besides, "pop" music and literature are popular for a reason--they possess something that touches a broad swath of people. There is no shame in that.
 
I, without irony, downloaded Barry Manilow's and ABBA's greatest hits to my iPod. (I self-consciously click to the next song if "Mandy" or "Dancing Queen" shuffle around while someone is standing in my office. I have some pride.) And I'll be reading "Oscar Wao" only after I finish "White Witch, Black Curse" about a kick-ass, crime-fighting witch and her partners--a leather-wearing, bisexual vampire and a foul-mouthed, 18-year-old pixie. (The latter is on my iPod so I can delete any trace of it once I'm done; otherwise, it would go on my bedroom shelf where tome's of suspect literary merit go to hide.)
 
Oh, I know you book and music snobs are judging me. And I don't care.

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