Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Garbo Speaks: I Vant To Read Alone

I'm going to begin by using three words I really hate having to utter: I. Was. Wrong.

In the lively discussion that took place in the comments to Stephen Gertz's provocative post on e-books vs. print books, I confessed that I would love to have a Kindle or other e-book reader for travel. My deepest, darkest fear is of being stuck in a hotel room or airport with nothing to read but my smaller-than-3 oz. tube of toothpaste.

Consequently, my luggage weighs a ton, because I have to carry the book I'm currently reading, a book to start when I finish that one, and a third book as back-up in case the second book sucks or I finish it, too, during an airline strike or other travel disaster. The idea of having all of these books on a single device that weighs less than 2 pounds was wildly appealing, until I read this article, in which the New York Times "Style" section joyously informed me that using an e-book reader would make the experience of reading less "isolating."

It seems, dear readers, that "historically, there has been a stigma attached to the bookworm, and that actually came from the not-untrue notion that, if you were reading, you weren’t socializing with other people." But fear not, technology is here to change all that. Whip out your iPad or Kindle, and you will be the center of attention, the belle of the ball. 

According to one traveler, "People approach me and ask to see it, to touch it, how much I like it. That rarely happens with dead-tree books." So rejoice, bookworms! No longer are you the anti-social pariah all others eye with suspicion while you enjoy the charms of Jane Austen or Mark Twain. Now, you're one of the cool kids. Your e-reader makes you the envy of all around you: "the sleekness and portability of the iPad erases any negative notions or stigmas associated with reading alone." Imagine my relief when I read that "Buying literature has become cool again."

Admittedly, I'm a curmudgeon, but I like being left alone when I'm reading. I really don't care if there's a stigma attached, or if others consider me unapproachable or unfriendly. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I would venture to guess that most of our readers have at some time used a book as armor against the unwanted attention of others. 

In the Dante's Inferno that modern air travel has become, a book and headphones are essential equipment. I'm sure many, if not most, of my fellow travelers are very nice people, but I just don't have the energy to be social. After I've negotiated traffic, parking, security lines behind people who evidently haven't flown since 1966, endured the disrobing and unpacking required just to get through security only to arrive at the gate and find it has been changed to the other side of the airport, run through the airport, stopping to grab some disgusting excuse for food to keep me from collapsing before I reach my destination, just to reach the new gate and learn that the flight is now delayed three hours, I really not up for chit-chat. I want to escape, and as Emily said, "There is no frigate like a book . . ."

What I do NOT want is to be surrounded by people asking questions about my e-reader, wanting to see it, wanting to touch it. I want to be left to the solitary pleasure of reading--truly one of the great joys of life, one that allows me to escape the screaming children, the business execs on cell phones, the endless, indecipherable announcements over the PA system. I'm no longer in the nightmare that is DFW or O'Hare, I'm in the English countryside, or walking through Paris, or chasing a murderer with Hercule Poirot. I am as close as I can get to happiness, under the circumstances.

For me, one of the chief virtues of reading in public is that it does allow one to avoid undesired contact with others. I've been known to choose books for their deterrent-to-conversation qualities alone. Bestsellers should be avoided, as should attractive covers that might invite queries. Classics are a good choice; no one wants to know how you like that book they avoided reading in high school English. If you're traveling within the U. S., a book in a foreign language can be the ideal discouragement to those who might be seeking a conversational partner. A friend has used annual flights from the U.S. to Australia to read all of Proust in French, and my sister, who reads Russian, is never bothered when she whips out her volume of Chekhov in the original language.

So to the many virtues of the printed book let us add: Allows one to read undisturbed in public. Sorry Amazon and Apple, no e-reader for me. Convenience and lighter luggage are no recompense for the loss of the solitary pleasure of reading.

Now you kids get off my lawn.


  1. Ah, but think of the opportunities to be snippy with people. ;)

  2. K, here's a money-making plan, Cokie. Let's make fake books that hold e-readers! That way, those misguided souls who have invested in digital pads can get their privacy back! We can use Apple's price point guidelines. Say, $29.99 with an assortment of book jackets. Additional book jackets only 1.99!

  3. You've just about said it all and I couldn't agree more. I'm a reader and a writer; I am, by nature and necessity, an isolationist. But, also being a bit insecure, I learned in grammar school how to be a clown if I wanted attention. (Do they still call it grammar school? I can't see why, though, as so few seem to be learning grammar. But, I digress.) So, if I want attention I can get it in other ways than by virtue of the electronic devices I carry. Finally, if the vast public can't resist invading my self-imposed exile, I've found that even the most intrepid interloper can be thwarted if I simply wet myself.

  4. I want to read, and undisturbed! I get very crabby when on airplanes people insist on talking to me, even though they can see that I have my book open and am turning the pages! I generally carry paperbacks, certainly for overseas flights, so I can just discard them and lighten the load. But beware! Don't do it in the long corridors between the plane and the "outlet" or you might get hauled in for planting a bomb - happened to me in Frankfurt or Heathrow, don't remember which.
    I am afraid of running out of battery with either iPad or Kindle ...


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