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Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin

Posted: July 29, 2010 10:26 AM

To Judge a Nook By Its Cover

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The other day I took the train into the city. I love to take the train, having grown up in car-crazy Indiana. Mass transit is still a novelty to me, even after fourteen years of living in the Chicago area. It's like going on a mini vacation, every time.

And just like going on vacation, I board the train armed with supplies. A cup of coffee, a candy bar -- and always, a good book.

The other day I settled into my seat, took out my book, and prepared to spend the next fifty minutes in uninterrupted literary bliss. But before I did, I paused to look around and see what my fellow passengers were reading. I always do this, and I'm never disappointed. Commuters are great readers.

Now, I know that reading is considered a solitary act, but I happen to think there's a communal aspect to it, as well. Perhaps I'll notice that the woman across the aisle is reading the latest Anne Tyler; our gazes might meet, we might smile and nod, and know something about each other. Just a little thing -- that we share a taste for gem-like novels set in Baltimore, apparently -- but it's something. Or I might note that the gentleman two seats up is reading science fiction; not a genre I personally like, but one that my husband does. In fact, my husband is reading that particular book right now; I recognize the cover, as it's been on his nightstand for a week.

(As an author, I always get a very special thrill when I catch someone reading my book. I must confess that, on occasion, I have assumed the pose in my author photo and looked coyly at the person reading. I must also confess that this has only ever resulted in people getting up and moving far away from me.)

However, it's as a reader that I most enjoy this form of literary eavesdropping. Many times I have written down the title of a book that I have seen on a train, or a plane, or at the beach; many wonderful books have I read, then. Books I might never have discovered otherwise.

On the return trip home, I encountered a young woman standing up, waiting for her stop, engrossed in a book. So engrossed was she that she did not even look up when one man said something not very gentlemanly as he hit his shin on her purse; I was dying to know what book could so completely capture her attention. I craned my head to see, but to no avail. Because this woman was reading on a Kindle.

Now, I'm not opposed to e-Readers, be they Kindles, Nooks, iPads or Kobos. I can see the appeal of them, especially for commuters. But for the first time I realized, as a reader, a very big drawback to these devices, and that is -- nobody can tell what you're reading.

This made me sad. The community of reading seemed, at that moment, to disappear entirely. I know that's an overreaction; I know that if I really wanted to, I could have asked the young woman the title of the book she was reading. But that seemed like an invasion of her privacy, and besides -- it's not practical or probably socially acceptable to run up to every person with a Nook and ask him what he's reading. One might argue this will lead to even more community among readers; personally, I think it will lead to an increase in restraining orders.

It also occurred to me that if I did go up to that young woman, the conversation would inevitably turn to the device upon which she was reading, instead of the book itself. I've talked to e-Reader owners before, and this is always the way the conversation goes. We discuss the convenience factor, the size of the type, the price -- we discuss everything, in fact, except the book that is being read on it. Presumably, as time goes on and more people incorporate e-Readers into their lives -- and with Amazon's announcement of a $139 Kindle, more people likely will -- this kind of conversation won't be necessary. And hopefully, we'll get back to discussing the book itself, not the device.

But still, without book covers that expose our literary tastes, it seems to me we will all be lonely islands unto ourselves, clutching our anonymous plastic devices, absorbed in books whose titles are forever known only to us. Maybe someone will come up with a chip that will enable the e-Reader to flash the cover of the book being read, like an electronic billboard; it could change with every book that's opened up on the device.

But until then, I confess, I will be a little depressed. I don't want to think about all the great books I'm going to miss, simply because I can't see what everyone around me is reading. I don't want to envision the drab, colorless plastic future ahead of us.

Before I could muster the courage to sidle up to that young woman and read over her shoulder, like some creepy literary stalker, the train stopped. And, like in the denouement of many a great novel, we disembarked, each going a different way. We missed our connection; our happy ending was denied.

Because I never did find out the title of that book.

 

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