An Unlikely Companion

Posted on March 27, 2012 by

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It wasn’t until 2007 that my otherwise ultra-hip mother subscribed to an e-mail account—and finally learned to use a computer. For years, she crusaded against a digital mailbox with arguments like: “I like to just call people!” and “What’s wrong with regular mail?” It took the patience and savvy of her three young adult children to help her achieve computer autonomy.

The transition was not without its tribulations. For months after setting Mom loose in Internetland, I received panicky phone calls from her whenever a window was accidentally minimized or when the CAPS LOCK wantonly switched itself on (“What happened? What happened?!”). Despite the initial resistance and subsequent hardships, Mom is now a full-fledged cyber lady. She connects with old pals on Facebook, engages in witty e-mail threads with friends and family, finds killer dessert recipes using search engines, and might just be reading the Official TLG blog right now. Admittedly, her life has been enriched by this new and strange technology.

Because I was born in the 1980s, I was predisposed to proficiency in computer-related technology. And because I am relatively young, I am predisposed to accept change and the advent of new innovations. However, I want to tell you a tale that either reveals the obstinate and change-resistant powers of age or merely confirms the adage that ‘the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.’

(The scene opens in Stillwater, Minnesota, USA. There is a large bag in the center of a room. Menacing piles of clothes, toiletries, and footwear surround the bag. Order is absent. An alien form of myself is seated amidst the chaos pulling my hair and maniacally reciting lists. My eyes are glistening and wild with confusion).

Packing to move to Georgia was tricky. I was moving to a distant land for a full academic year. I didn’t know in which region of Georgia I would be placed (“Should I pack for semi-tropical, beachside, Black Sea fun-times, or should I pack my winter warrior gear to survive the long nights I’ll be spending in those magnificent Svan towers?”). If I packed like everyone else, then, I packed a little bit of everything, and had space leftover for absolutely nothing. Notwithstanding my uncertainties, I did know that I’d be experiencing loads of downtime. I have a predilection for reading, but I had an inkling that English-language literature/history/periodicals/travel guides would be in short supply Georgia. I’d need to pack books, then. I’d need to pack bulky books. And a year’s worth of them.

At once, a fiendish thought flashed across my consciousness. Rational side of me implored, “Just buy an e-reader.”

Emotional side of me was indignant! “Oh, sure! And let a machine “turn” my imaginary pages? And forfeit the physical book that I will lovingly hold between my hands and later place on my bookshelf as a trophy of intellectual achievement? Is that what you suggest?! And what of bookmarks and scribbles in the margin? E-readers are for braggarts, for depraved people who actually despise reading—those people who read crappy books and like to show off their crappy e-readers. I won’t have it!”

Rational side of me won because its argument was, well, more rational. With hesitation, I bought a Kindle e-reader. I was still scoffing at it even as I pulled it out of the packaging.

After owning a Kindle for nearly seven months, I’ll say this: I’m the contemptible one! My Kindle is my best travel companion. Why am I so satisfied? Allow me to rave about it:

  • I can download nearly any book or periodical with a simple click of the mouse. Within seconds new material is at my fingertips. To avoid buyer’s remorse, I can download sample chapters for free and enjoy free 2-week trial subscriptions to periodicals.
  • Any book with an expired copyright is free. The works of Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde for free? Yep.
  • The average e-reader weighs less than one pound. What previously required the support of a bookcase can now be held between human fingers effortlessly. In practice, this means that the wrist-fatigue associated with holding 300+ page books all but disappears.
  • A reader does not experience the irritation of having to strain to see the words close to the binding.
  • For outdoor reading enthusiasts: an e-reader will not snap shut, nor will a page turn with the gentlest gust of wind.
  • An e-reader’s matte screen can be read from any angle (just like a paper book). It also is not backlit like a computer screen. Your eyes won’t even notice the difference!
  • My Kindle makes me smarter. Instead of inferring the meaning of words like “aspersion” or “motility” by context, I can simply tap on the word and voila! the definition appears. This has helped me not only improve my English vocabulary, but after downloading a Spanish-English dictionary, I can now read Spanish-language periodicals and books with much greater ease.
  • Have you ever watched someone read a traditional newspaper? The fumbling with the oversized paper, the origami required to find the Business section, the spasmodic snapping of the paper to keep it upright. Ridiculous. Is this the best we humans (who have traveled to space, cloned living organisms, and invented cheesecake) can do? Certainly not. The e-reader allows a newspaper-reader to consume their news with one hand. Reading the news has never looked more sane.
  • My Kindle has wireless and 3G capabilities. I can connect to online bookstores and have materials delivered wirelessly within seconds. Can you say the same for your book?
  • An e-reader preserves the sense of accomplishment offered by a traditional paper book. Sure, there are no physical pages to mark progress, but there is a subtle percentage tracker that is equally as satisfying to watch as I read.

Owning an e-reader as an ex-pat in a place like Georgia has given me access to otherwise unavailable materials and has improved my quality of life. I am up-to-date on current events, I caught up on all those classics I have been meaning to read, and I explored materials I would never have found at a “real” bookstore neither in Georgia nor in the United States. My e-reader is the most valuable thing I packed.

Most of us have dismissed a typewriter for the obvious advantages of the computer, the wall phone for the mobile phone, snail mail for e-mail, film cameras for digital cameras, ocean liners for airplanes. Come on, did any TLG volunteers sail here? Newfangled things are often objects of confusion and derision at first, but are ultimately sources of convenience and enrichment. My experience with the Kindle has reminded me of this. So, dear reader, consider dismissing your attachment to “the way things have always been” and investigate the possibility of acquiring an e-reader of your own.

Or just wait until your adult children finally shame you into getting one.

(Sorry, Mom, and you’re welcome, Amazon.com)

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