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The Page Turner

E-book readers like the Amazon Kindle 2 can fundamentally alter the experience of travel. Especially if you read between the lines.

Author ADAM SACHS Illustration JOHN CUNEO

“EXCUSE ME,” the pretty lady in the departures lounge says, leaning close and speaking slowly. “May I ask you what that gadget is?”

“It’s for reading,” I say. I’ve just come off a thirteen-and-a-half-hour transpacific flight and am not sure I’m fully making sense as I wait for my connection. “It’s got books in it,” I add brightly, now tapping the tablet stupidly. “Thousands of books inside.” Then I sort of wave the device in the air, as if to prove how light and portable it is and say hey, look at me, I’m reading.

“Oh…books,” she says, straightening her back. She’s got an iPhone in her hand, and I imagine she’s ready to Google Map her way to a better conversation. Clearly she expected more. It’s as if she’d asked me if those were high-tech, gel-infused, shock-absorbant, hybrid, Bluetooth-enabled cross-trainers on my feet — and I’d answered cheerily, “No, they’re corrective shoes!” Because here’s the thing: Reading is not sexy.

True, smart is a turn-on. Books themselves can be physically beautiful and their contents intellectually alluring. But literacy is never going to be the killer conversational app. And reading gear — even a slim, 3G-enabled, iPod-white thingie that holds 1,500 books and zips them magically through the ether — that’s just never going to make the gadget-fans drool. The electronic reader — a category that includes not only the Amazon Kindle in my hand but the Sony Reader and a growing list of competitors — might be the first truly ingenious, paradigm-shifting piece of technology that actually makes you feel less cool than you were without it.

“And does it have email?” she asks, kindly. Email? Lady, I want to tell her, I can send and receive email from my microwave oven. My kid’s lunchbox does email. (I don’t have a microwave or a kid, but I’m pretty sure those are standard options.) Now I’m thinking about all my Kindle has done for me. After lugging a dozen books in it across two oceans and a couple of weeks of constant travel, it occurs to me: I like this thing. Not once did it run out of power or out of pages to entertain me; nor did it strain either my back or my eyes. Sitting on a beach in New Zealand I’d caught up on two recent issues of The New Yorker, sent to the Kindle via subscription and magic (or Whispernet, as Amazon goofily insists on calling its cellular technology). The electronic ink looked great in the bright sun, no glare or reflection. And just like with the lo-fiversion, I mostly skipped the critics and turned to the comics.

On the plane I’d read James Joyce’s Ulysses. Or sort of read it. For all its black-and-white, no-frills, made-for-reading seriousness, the Kindle’s still a gadget, so it’s hard not to goof around with the features it does have. Typing “book” on the clickety keypad, I found that the word appears 103 times in Ulysses. In place of numbered pages, the Kindle has “locations.” So at location 6,439, we read “If the accused could speak he could a tale unfold — one of the strangest that have ever been narrated between the covers of a book.” Stranger still (both to Joyce and the guy in the window seat next to me), the Kindle can read to you: Hit a few buttons and you have an instant, if stiffly robotic, audiobook.

Jumping to another location, a character is described as carrying “two bloody big books tucked under his oxter.” I guide the little joystick over the unfamiliar “oxter” and the Kindle’s dictionary enlightens me: “Scottish & N. English: a person’s armpit.”

Tucking the Kindle under my own oxter, I walked back to the bathroom to read some more. There may be more serious factors to weigh in the push and pull between print and e-books, but surely the Bathroom Test is an important one, and the Kindle passes. Added plus: Nobody in line knows if you were reading a newspaper in there or hunkering down with a 900-page novel.

No flight (let alone bathroom break) is long enough to finish Ulysses, but I did have fun clicking around, and I learned some things. Maybe I was becoming iLiterate. With a Kindle you’re reading the same words you would in a “real” book, but we’re trained by our web browsing and total-access iPhones and the staccato blathering blasts of tweets and texts to think of what we see on a screen as somehow different from what’s on a printed page. Print is permanent, screens ephemeral. So it feels a little strange to be holding a sleek gadget that doesn’t map the nearest movie theater or show clips of last night’s Daily Show. The Kindle does have a rudimentary web browser. It’s in the menu under “Experimental” and it’s pokey enough that you’ll probably use it as many times as you’ll look up “oxter” in an airplane bathroom. The whole idea of e-books and electronic ink is not so much to trick the brain and eye into feeling as if they’re experiencing the same thing as with the printed page, but to get us hooked on a different way of reading. The Kindle is print-plus. It’s plain old unsexy reading with some bells and whistles under the hood. The Kindle is homely and straitlaced — and that’s what I like about it. It’s uncool in a cool way. Just like reading.

“Is it free or do you have to pay for it?” the woman asks, but by now I’ve tuned her out. It does cost a pretty hefty $359, and most of the books cost money as well, but I’m not interested in debating with her the merits of a dedicated book machine versus her flashy do-everything phone. What I’m interested in is browsing the online Kindle Store with the device itself to find something to distract me on the next leg of my trip. I read a short story in The New Yorker and think I’ll pick up a novel by the same author. Meanwhile, a free Cook’s Illustrated cookbook I preordered has come buzzing onto my homepage. On a recent trip, I’d enjoyed reading a paperback copy of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. This time, before leaving I downloaded half a dozen other Chesterton titles onto the Kindle — just in case the mood struck. The thing doesn’t have quite the tactile feel or memory sense of the creased old Penguin paperback, but it’s easy to look at and easy to fill with good things. I don’t have time to contemplate the end of the printed word. My flight’s about to leave — and I have too much reading to do.

Travel and food writer ADAM SACHS (www.adamsachs.org) rarely finishes a book, electronic or otherwise.


What else to read on the go in June

Go Like Hell
Hemingway once called auto racing one of only three true sports (“the rest are mere games”). A.J. Baime’s feverish chronicle documents the epic, ego-fueled battle between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari for ontrack supremacy at Le Mans, the world’s greatest race. They developed some of the sexiest race cars ever, and spared no cost — neither in dollars nor in drivers’ lives.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Generations of middle school students know the poor unfortunates accused of witchcraft in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, were innocent victims of Puritan hysteria. Or were they? Katherine Howe’s gripping debut, about a contemporary grad student investigating the era, gives the tale of Goody Proctor & Co. a Hogwarts twist, and in the process weaves a bewitching spell of its own.

Life Inc.
Just as our most formidable corporate institutions are stumbling, author Douglas Rushkoff offers up an eye-opening history of “corporatism,” from the Medieval rise of the burghers to the giddy “no money down” heights of the real estate boom. His central point — that “symbols and brands have come to substitute for human relation-ships” — has a timely resonance.

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