Monday, February 15, 2010

Sentimentalist's Complaint

Adventures in Subway Reading
The Nostalgia of Printed Matter vs. the Ambiguity of Digitized Text
by Lonely Christopher

Here follows an anecdotal observation from a member of Gotham’s minor literati. I, amateur book detective (or snoop), am noticing more commuters cradling an ebook reader, usually the Kindle, on the subway. It’s obvious the format of digital readers (ereaders? whatever) is insidiously, for us who can’t sleep of nights over it, maturing out of a novelty stage and entering the general usage. This is confusing and scary for most writers and many readers for a rainbow of silly and serious reasons. The immediate loss I notice here has to do with my own intrusive spying on the leisure activities of strangers. Who doesn’t enjoy scoping out what a fellow passenger is reading on the train? Today, on a platform, I caught a malnourished brain in possession of a hardcover copy of one of the books Chuck Palahniuk wrote after I fully stopped paying attention to what he publishes every year. Yesterday, a twee, graying man was perusing a Modern Library edition I went to comic lengths to identify while hanging over him on the 1 Uptown (I blame my eyesight for the failure). These little invasions are a dynamic element of traveling with fellow readers; they’re causes for casual judgments and unrealized communions.

In remembrance of recently deceased champion of messianic neurotics, Mr. Salinger, I recently returned to a volume of his for comfort and enrichment (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction); reading the famous little white book, with is rainbow band in the upper left corner of the cover, caused me to become extremely self-aware on the subway. His books all look alike, which recalls the ereader problem, but at least the title is printed clearly on cover and spine --- preventing the mistaken assumption that I was actually reading, god forbid, Catcher in the Rye. Still, was somebody judging me from a casual remove? Should I have rather kept my guiltily sentimental choice in reading material safely concealed in the privacy of my room? I worried anxiously some grad student was frowning at the superficiality, the downright phoniness, of picking up an author in the wake of his death --- let alone one so accessible and beloved by uncritical teenagers. I would faint, nay die, from embarrassment if I saw her, my auditor, sternly grasping an edition of Being and Time, peering over the margins and tsking me. I made sure the next tome I brandished publically in transit was Faust. Instead of anxiety I felt a certain elitist pride (which almost distracted me from my dislike of Walter Arndt’s limp translation).

Regardless! this experience was and remains a precious one, in my “book,” no matter the circumstance. It’s frustrating to witness a fellow rider openly reading some text when the nature of said text is rendered unrecognizable from being presented in the uniformly drab format of an ereader --- that is, printed, in self-erasing digital ink, across the pale face of a tablet’s screen (so that woman over there might be reading Dan Brown or Proust, for all I know). There are some, certainly, who must find it convenient to dock a library within a lightweight plastic container; undoubtedly, the girth of plenty books prevents easy subway perusal. It’s less of a strain to bring with you this week’s New Yorker than The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. (Withal, I admit, there’s a sound argument against the efficacy of trying to concentrate on serious literature in the screechy, bumpy environment of a train barreling though a tunnel --- but I’ve certainly tried lugging giant collected editions of difficult or subtle writers on subterranean trips, sans regret. I read most of Moby-Dick underground, actually.) The fact is: weighing your bag with unwieldy books for a literary schlep remains, more than an impractical failure of the form/function model, a sentimental matter of tradition threatened by new technology.

Every once in a while I spot a hipster fifteen pages into Infinite Jest (another hefty but rewarding lump to transport); an unlikely subject, say a security guard, reading Flaubert in the original; once even, at Carroll Street, I cringed at a man in a hunting jacket with his face smashed into that memoir Sarah Palin did with a ghostwriter. Noticing these things becomes a sort of hobby, vacation, or at least a diversion from the torturous conditions of the metropolitan subway system. It doesn’t mean anything, and nothing comes of it, but it’ll be missed when it’s gone. Anyway, I will miss it already, mourn it. It’s a dynamic aspect of the otherwise overwhelmingly unpleasant (not mention potentially dangerous) experience of riding with the MTA.

While mostly a passive activity, the potential for accidental interaction or exchange lurks like a quiet promise. I read in public as frequently as I watch public readers; the idea that this might provoke a conversation with a stranger is a small amusement. I’m afraid in my experience this almost never happens, though. The major exception was, once on the Chinatown bus to Philadelphia, I noticed the passenger seated next to me had a highlighted coursepack, with copied pages from Gender Trouble, open in her lap. “Ah!” I noted, pleased, “Butler!” She was a grad student at U Penn, it turned out. We proceeded to have a conversation about theory, with little asides gossiping about academia, which made the bus trip pass much quicker than usual. The other examples I can think of weren’t as significant, but here they are. Once, in a public space, a portly man with a cane interrupted a friend and me, busy studying copies of Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, to tell us that we ought not over-analyze that classic work of modernism --- in fact, he informed us, we needn’t read the novel at all: a long walk on a foggy June morning produces the same result. The final episode actually happened on the subway and is again related to Joyce. I was traveling on the G to Greenpoint, drunk as hell to meet some friends, and becoming extremely excited while rereading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In my glee, I turned to the elderly Polish lady sitting next to me --- and slurred something at her that I’m sure I thought was entirely profound re Joyce’s story. The woman reacted with alarm and changed seats. I’m not sure if that counts.

I’m usually too much a coward to yell across the car at somebody interesting reading something I recognize and am enthusiastic about. Maybe that’s a socialized behavior that keeps me from the misconduct of, for recent instance, the toothless man I gravely witnessed making single female passengers on the F train maximally uncomfortable by swaying directly over them and pointing a lecherous grin into their laps. Generally, fellow passengers revert to the survival mechanism of outwardly ignoring their surroundings while remaining surreptitiously vigilant. This retards possible interaction between an unrecognized fellowship of readers, it’s true. I have a particular, wholly unrealized, fantasy about bonding with a stranger over subway reading material that I’ll share forthwith. I daydream about noticing, on the Manhattan-bound C, a cute boy my age totally engrossed in a dog-eared copy of something by Gertrude Stein (Three Lives, sure, but I would go gaga if it were The Making of Americans). It would remind me of how I years ago discovered Stein while standing in the C train on my way to the Museum of Natural History. I opened a library copy of Tender Buttons and presently missed my stop, such was my amazement at her language. In this boy-watching scenario, I’m also reading something intelligent --- perhaps re-familiarizing myself Barthes’ S/Z, say. The coincidence would be too attractive to shrug off. I would boldly approach the boy with Stein in his lap and, cradling my own book like a purse, inform him how dearly I love Gertrude. He’d respond in kind and supplement his appreciation with an insightful mini-lecture on repetition and substance. We’d forget our initial destinations and disembark around Central Park. After a long, engaging colloquy we’d decide to move to Paris and get married. Only I hear the trains don’t run all night there.

I suspect I am of the final generation that shall retain any nostalgia for the book as singular object. When negotiating a publishing contract recently, I had to parse the implications of “digital rights” vis-à-vis the distribution of my own book. My message to the publisher was that there is no problem with selling my title in digital form (not that I had a choice) --- but, as far as the author is concerned, the book should fundamentally be defined by its physical incarnation. Maybe that’s old fashioned. There’s just something too suspiciously amorphous about digital reading at the moment --- as if a book, once digitized, disappears ghost-like into its technology. For a reader, especially a techno-savvy one, the idea that a digital book never goes out of print is a revelation: permanent access to texts in a state of de-commoditized anti-materiality! Reconciling that formlessness for authors is a different story. Plus, who will ever catch somebody on the subway smiling down into a book you wrote when it’s reconfigured as a bunch of constantly-erased letters washing over a little gray screen? The personality of the book as object is being replaced by the utilitarian absence of the digital situation. This is not a polemic on the subject, but a stupid sentimentalist’s complaint. I’ve tried to divine the title of a text being read by a commuter holding a Nook or Kindle: it’s nearly impossible without mutant eyesight, which I lack, or ingloriously huffing down the reader’s neck and squinting invasively at her device --- and that probably constitutes sexual assault, which is a serious crime.

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