I don't want to get all Wendall Berry on you. I like plenty of modern things. I also am not necessarily always cranky. But I do like to spend an evening now and again with some old school cranks. I like the physicality, the challenge, the reactions. I'm getting ahead of myself - let me explain.
My partner bought an album through Amazon and earned some credit toward their streaming movie feature. Clearly Amazon is trying to push everyone to all things digital, so you download a whole album and hey, why don't you watch a streaming film?! You'll be hooked. Since this would not cost any money, we said fine. We go to watch a film, however, and the sync is slightly off, with mouths moving just a bit of whack to the sound. Clearly there is quality sacrificed for convenience. Why should people watch movies this way?
We couldn't take it and stopped the movie halfway through, moving over to the Netflix "watch instant" feature... which was down, as a whole network. At this point, we just pulled out books to read.
But my point is the frustration. I couldn't call anyone - who does one call at Amazon or Netflix? I have no idea. I'm sitting in the privacy of my own home, with useless technology failing me, mocking my request for such luxurious convenience. I was isolated and all I could do was throw up my hands and turn off the damn tv entirely - doesn't that sound familiar? Such technical errors leave me with a profound frustration, a feeling of lonely desperation and powerlessness.
Compare that story with a radically different experience of error, which occurred at Bingo night at a Catholic high school in a town just outside of Boston on a Thursday evening.
There are many amazing things about Bingo, something I had not experienced as an adult until this magical evening. If you, too, have not experienced this, it's a bit of a culture shock. I was warned, and I was still taken aback, but some deep part of me fell in love. I can sum up the experience with a few quick anecdotes:
1) A middle-aged man on the steps of the school saw us approaching and said, "You gents here for bingo?" When we answered in the affirmative, he said, "You bettah hope you don't win - those old ladies will kill you! You take ya life into your own hands, gentlemen."
2) When the announcer said he wouldn't call the door prize until the next smoke break - when, of course, many of the gals would be out smoking - a 60 year old (or so) gal next to my friend actually screamed out to him, despite him being across an auditorium, "you retahded asshole!"
3) The older lady across from me, who with her friend helped me with all the many surprisingly complicated games - you have no idea - won $150, at which point she rubbed the cash on my friend's arm for luck. She was otherwise unmoved. She said she once won $1100 here, over the course of the month, and I asked her outright, "Did you ever get excited, at any of those wins?" "No," she answered, and I nodded, entirely believing her. She later rooted for me as I was 2 numbers away from winning $750. Sadly, it didn't help.
Now that you have the tone, let me explain the error. At the start of the night, the announcer stood up on a chair to announce that bingo would begin momentarily. Then he fell of the chair. This was the error. There were gasps; those who could, jumped up; others, including the gals across from me, shook their head and muttered how he was going to kill himself one of these days. Some folks looked confused and others explained what happened. People smiled at each other and shook their heads as he got to his feet, unharmed. The game was up and running in no time.
I know this is simplistic, but it was nice to have this error happening in a shared space, and that that space was replicating a cultural practice that hasn't changed too much in a long time. They still use daubers and printed out boards of all kinds (leading me to wonder, who manufactures these things!) and put the numbers called on a big screen with basic light bulbs. I should admit, though, that things have progressed since I was a kid: when someone called BINGO!, the person checking had only to read the card ID number from the middle of the winning board, which was then checked in a computer (maybe) and verified immediately. They did not have to go through each square to make sure the right number was called.
In this context, we all shared in the error, and we all got over the error. Maybe we grumbled, maybe we saw it as evidence of a larger problem, maybe we hardly noticed, maybe we had so little sympathy for the guy that later we'd call him a "retahded asshole" when he threatened not to read the door prize number at the appointed time. But we were in a room together, and we didn't need much to have a pretty damn fun evening. I don't think I could replicate that in a chatroom. We didn't need to each have a computer terminal or laptop or handheld device. We just needed a stack of boards and daubers, and for some of us, the occasional pudgy hand coming over to tag a square I missed (for this, I repeatedly thanked - but also chastised - my neighbor).
Books are isolating in a sense, but then not. When I'm editing, I tell the author that she or he is the guide for the reader. You two are in this together, with you leading the way, so be nice, be clear, know where you're going. (I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn now and feel like I know this narrator incredibly well. I hardly feel alone as I read the book.) But then if that reader is using a Kindle and the batteries die - not a shocking thing to have happen with any electronic device - she can't read that book, take that journey. I guess I feel like right now, with reading, that's too much reliance on technology, and not because I dislike technology so much, but just because, as we have said so many times here at SotB, it just feels unnecessary.
It's like that quote featured on Shelf Awareness recently, where a woman noted that as her plane landed, she didn't have to "turn off" her book. At bingo, I didn't have to find a plug because my board was starting to fade. My only technical challenge was keeping the lid off the dauber - my neighbor explained that I was wasting time replacing that lid between each number call. Another good tip.
Similarly, I was chatting with a colleague who is unabashedly pro-book, in all it's expensive, wasteful paperness. He goes out and buys fat, esoteric hardcovers with no discount. He's crazy! And someone told him how e-books can have things embedded in them - videos, music, etc... He said he calmly explained back that if he's reading a book on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the author references Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, his brain will recall images he has seen of this event. His brain will make those connections. He doesn't need a video implanted in the e-book to show him the speech. In fact, he said he can read very quickly, but he doesn't, because he likes having his brain make those connections, scanning through his wide breadth of book knowledge to connect this image in a book on Churchill to that other book he read on Krakow, etc etc... It made me think of how everyone pulls out an iphone now as soon as anything even slightly obscure comes up. Our brains are atrophying.
In my role as editor, I want to be creative in thinking what makes a good book in 2010, but I also want to preserve what a book can and should do, and not try too hard to make it do everything for everyone. Things fail when you try to be all things to all people, but I fear that's where the purveyors of new book technology are going. So we sacrifice quality - the screen isn't great in the sun, not every book you want is there, oh I rarely read the whole book on this thing but I'll read a few chapters - for the supposed convenience, because we're told its convenient.
But what is that convenience? You can order a book that you read about online right then and have it right then. You didn't have to talk to a human at a bookstore, walk down the street to that bookstore. You didn't have to leave your home or office. You just pushed some buttons and there it is. The narrator, your guide, holds her hand out and you two are ready to go.
So what happens when something goes wrong, when that narrator falls off the chair, metaphorically, but doesn't get back up? Batteries are dead, system is down, Amazon has taken back the files and you have no one to complain to.
If you want to complain to me, too bad: I'll be a bingo with my new friends.