By Rich Russell
The season for reading is here, friends! I feel guilty about how little progress I’ve made on the stack of books nesting on my bedside table: a veritable, vertical library that teeters like some structurally unsound tower threatening to collapse and smother me in my sleep (a poetic end to be sure). These books were set aside with the best intentions of being attended to when the spring semester ended, the weather warmed, and the beaches here in South Jersey filled with vacationers. And now, for me, I’m teaching two online, accelerated (i.e., six-week) composition courses, and so in a Pimm’s Cup half-empty mindset, I feel the summer is effectively over for me: go on without me, fair reader!
But back to my own neglected reading list. When friends look at that bedside Stack, one which most bibliophiles have somewhere in their homes, their first reaction is usually, “Why don’t you just get a Kindle?” — or “Nook” or [insert name of e-reading device that would care to sponsor me]. My immediate response is a begrudging, “I know, I know! — I really need a [sponsored e-reader],” which is usually followed by the somewhat inane follow-up of, “I just like reading books,” with the implication, of course, not that e-books are not book-books so much as they are not the experience I have been accustomed to since my parents read to me in utero. But do e-readers not have the same words as their pulpy predecessors? Would the word ‘rose,’ on a Kindle, not still read as sweet?
What I believe is, is that the publishing industry — like the music industry and the movie industry — needs to e-volve. The textbook industry (which I discussed briefly in my last post) needs to see that, for students, e-textbooks could be a great salvation: a way to save trees, save money, save their aching backs, and save books from being burned.
At a recent rehearsal dinner for a friend’s wedding in Cambridge, the bride’s father introduced himself with a “I heard that I just had to come say hi to Rich,” and when I explained that his daughter and I had been classmates in graduate school together (in an English M.A. at UCL), he whipped out his smartphone and proceeded to show me all of the books he had read and was reading on his Kindle app, which syncs with the Kindle program on his computer, and, of course, with his Kindle itself. After ten minutes or so, my friend Rachel (the bride-to-be) came over to interrupt us (“I came to save you,” she whispered), but I was utterly enthralled. The father-of-the-bride was so convincing in how this technology had changed him as a reader: how he was able to always have access to the book he was reading (so long as you don’t forget your smartphone), interact with books (you always have a dictionary with you), and share books (this still seems a bit more tricky: I think he said that he and his wife both share the same Kindle account).
In terms of sharing, I still find there to be something incomparable about being able to hand someone a printed tome; to being able to inscribe a message, even if it’s just the date and your name. My teaching mentor when I was a “first-year” explained it to me this way one day: “When you lend a book to a student, you show him that you believe in his abilities. That you care about him.” (It still gets me a bit choked up inside just thinking about that: how that simple, intimate act can really connect two individuals and even, potentially, transform an entire life.) I still have students who have my copies of Wide Sargasso Sea, Everything Is Illuminated, and others, on permanent loan. (One must lend books to students without any expectation of ever seeing them again: neither the books nor necessarily the students themselves. One gives the books freely and must trust in their abilities.)
Still, why not — why haven’t I yet traded in the Stack, the four or five different books I seem to be always carrying about with me — for one simple app or a tablet or reader? I have plenty of books already that I could continue to lend to students; what else is stopping me? I submit to you three additional reservations, all of them I’m sure irrational, about why I do not yet have an e-reader:
Reservation 1: I like page numbers. How can I tell a student, “If you look at the 45 percent mark of Moby Dick” — ? (It just still seems unnatural somehow.)
Reservation 2: I’m claustrophobic. For some reason, I feel trapped only being able to look at one small screen at any given time. I like to be able to glance, on occasion, at the cover, at the author’s bio, at the typographical information (yes, I am one of those people who actually checks out what the typeset is: I like that there is an intentioned typset for printed material), being able to “exist” on more than one page at a time. (One finger held here, another there, and so on.) I realize there are ways of approximating this experience on the e-reading devices, but —
Reservation 3: It’s not the same. It’s just not. I flip through books I read in college and have saved on my shelves, and there I find concert or train ticket stubs pressed into random pages. A mustard or coffee stain is evidence that this page was read during a meal. Even if, for the sake of my students, I am able to adapt the textbooks that I use in class (eventually) to e-books (to save on the expense, conserve trees, and so on), like a somewhat obdurate consumer, I think I will always still need that primal experience of paper.
About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.