Can machines select the next book for you to read? In this view of the future, a book's DNA can be compared to your “reader DNA,” and the bookseller – no longer a human but a machine automatically channeling books to you – is guaranteed growing sales forever.
From Guy Tiphane: Letter from… Antigua, Guatemala
This I almost called “Letter from an Airplane,” first drafted on a flight from San Francisco to Toronto, edited in the basement of a house in the lower Laurentians (north of Montreal), and finalized in Guatemala.
On the night before leaving for the first trip, I had finished reading Madame Bovary, in a lovely new translation by Lydia Davis (Viking, 2010), and needed to take some other reading with me. It was December 22, in Berkeley, when most students had left already, and even People’s Café, usually busy until 2 a.m., was closed for lack of customers. I braved the cold, deserted streets to Pegasus Books with a list of three books harvested from a blogger’s Top 10” books of 2011 (“Unabridged Chick”).
How I made my list deserves a paragraph. A writer friend of mine, Michael Alenyikov, whom I see mostly on Facebook, had posted a link to the blogger’s list the previous day, as he’d found his own collection of connected short stories, Ivan and Misha (Triquarterly, 2010) in it.
The blogger bragged, justifiably, about having reached her goal of 100 in the year. Yes, dear reader, that would average to two books per week, 3.65 days per book, a rate you and I may not have reached, having neglected to learn to read speedily, and letting ourselves be distracted by our daily lives. I would not even have time to blog about the books, or make a top 10 list, whatever excuse might come to my creative mind at this time. Other top 10 lists were available, of course, from local and national bestsellers lists to those anointed by prestigious publications and reviewers. But this list had something much more personal about it, and I suspected none of the books had been sent to her for free, their cost not even qualifying as a business expense. The recommendations felt truly sincere, not pushed by an agent or publisher with the intent to increase sales. So I wanted to run this experiment: read one of her top 10, and decide there and then if this reader could be one “Like me” whose future recommendations I could take seriously.
It was 9:30 p.m., and the bookstore was closing at 10. How did it get to be so late, I wondered, knowing that it’s the same every time I have to pack a suitcase for a long trip. None of the titles were available at this store (chosen for its proximity), so I settled for an alternative, Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending (Knopf, 2011), and a discounted non-fiction intended to broaden my horizons.
All this would be simpler had I had an electronic book reader, I thought on my way home. Sooner or later, it was now clear to me, I would have to surrender to the commanders of progress who want to sell us devices and an endless supply of books in electronic format. I would have to surrender because one day I will find myself without the energy or the resources to run to a bookstore with only a few minutes to browse.
Winter travel can be long and tedious in the northern hemisphere. If your destination isn’t one served by a non-stop flight, you can only hope you or your suitcase (made heavy by skates, snow boots, and winter clothes) will arrive at your destination as scheduled. Everything feels cumbersome, which is why you should come prepared with a good book to read. On the airplane, you can turn off the video screen in front of you, rest your eyes and calm your mind.
I finished reading The Sense of an Ending within 3.65 days (it is shorter than average), and found myself without a book to read for the rest of my stay at my sister’s house. It didn’t really matter to me, in this annual change of context that are the holidays, I found little free time between dinner parties and the various activities my nieces wanted to involve me in.
I decided to make a list of requirements for choosing an electronic book reader, influenced, of course, by what’s available now. I must be methodical because this isn’t a trendy or frivolous purchase. I keep telling myself I’ll resist as long as I can, and as long as there are bookstores and libraries on my way, because in the electronic world, things may change rapidly.
Here is my list:
1. The device shouldn’t be locked to a single supplier of reading material.
2. It must be as light as possible: I want to read anywhere.
3. It must be easy on my eyes: no backlit display, and a good selection of fonts and sizes.
4. The battery must last a very long time.
This list in hand, I nearly bought a Kobo Touch, until I understood that in this electronic world, one cannot pass on a book to a friend without passing the whole device with it. I need some time to digest this: buying e-books is means storing them in the attic after reading them. You can’t give them away or lend them to visitors, who can’t see them on your bookshelves. They have zero value once you’ve bought them, just like music and movies downloaded on an iPod. This feels disconcerting to someone used to seeing books, some neatly stacked, others scattered in every corner of his room, but I must recognize that they’ve become decoration and that books I didn’t care much about end up cluttering the space.
I no longer need heavy and bulky dictionaries, because I have installed more convenient dictionary applications on my iPod Touch. Several applications exist that advantageously replace the knowledge and expertise that could only be presented in a book before. One example is an application can identify a tree from a photo you take of its leaves. But a day will come when the iPod, like a bookshelf eaten by termites, will no longer work. This may happen to an e-book collection too, sooner than I might wish. Such thoughts leave me nonplussed and disinclined to convert. Publishers could make me happy again if they were to include the electronic format along with (say) the hardbound edition of a book I’d want to keep.
The day I left from Montreal, I found the very recent French translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s El Sueno del Celta (“Le Rêve du Celte,” Gallimard 2011) at the airport bookstore. Its hefty 520 pages followed me home, and three days later on the second trip, during which I also started reading local author Ellen Sussman’s French Lessons (Ballantine Books 2011 ), acquired at the bookstore in San Francisco Airport. I marveled at the fact that one could find an excellent selection of books at those airports.
Those two books may stay here in Antigua, Guatemala, abandoned or sold to a second-hand bookshop, should I not want to carry them home. I like both, enough to want to give them to a friend, but I must understand, and expect, the ephemeral nature of things. Yet it still feels better than this new world of electronic intangibility.
P.S. Of the books mentioned in this letter, only The Sense of an Ending was available in electronic format. I gave my real, hard-bound copy to a friend.
© Guy Tiphane 2012
Guy Tiphane writes short stories and poetry at firstname.lastname@example.org. He lives in Berkeley, California.