Critical Mass

Adventures in E-Reading: Guest Post from Michelle Kerns

By Michelle Kerns

Over the next month or so we're going to be offering a new series of guest posts (read the first series,”The Next Decade in Book Culture here). Our question: How are you handling the rise of the e-book? Are you reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Vook, have you reserved an iPad?  Are you buying e-books? Reading e-galleys? And how's it working out for you? Let us know your quibbles, quirks, happy and not so happy adventures in e-reading. This just in from Michelle Kerns, NBCC member and inventor of Book Review Bingo.


I am not a Luddite, nor am I Amish, but I do live in a very small Northern California town and sometimes that amounts to just about the same thing.

Out here – where the deer and the antelope or whatever roam and the same honking geese that woke me up every morning leaving the wetland behind my house on their way South in the fall now wake me up every morning on their annoyingly raucous way back – I’ve never once seen a person with a Kindle or a Sony Reader. Or any breed of e-book reader. Not once.

And, believe me, if anyone, anywhere, within a 10 mile radius owned one, I’d know. I’ve been on the lookout.

I finally got tired of waiting to sight one in the wild. I strapped on my bonnet, hitched up the wagon, and trekked in to Town, heading for the nearest Large Electronics Retailer.

A blue-shirted gentleman young enough to someday threaten to date one of my daughters directed me to a sleek little display devoted to the delights of the Sony Reader. A large video screen ran a running loop of smiling, well-dressed people enjoying a bit of reading while relaxing on the couch in a beautifully furnished, immaculate living room or lounging by a landscaped pool roomy enough for an Olympic swimmer to train in.

Beneath the screen was a row of the Readers themselves, all tethered securely with no-nonsense black cords to prevent them from making a bid for freedom into the dark recesses of the purse or jacket of the sort of individual not likely to be featured on the advertisement video.

I confess to being nervous about making Mr. Sony Reader’s acquaintance. I’d heard so much about him – would I hate him? Love him? And if I did love him, how would that affect my long-standing affection for print books? Would I become one of the Guilty Ones, contributing to the downfall of print? Technology is a slippery slope, you know: one day, you’re buying an e-book reader; the next, you’re watching a hologram of Cormac McCarthy reading Blood Meridian to you. Yeesh.

After a few awkward getting-to-know-you moments, I’d pretty much figured Mr. Sony Reader out. This button does this, this button does that. The only book loaded onto this particular specimen was, inexplicably, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain and I spent a few moments randomly bookmarking pages, just because I could.

I tried to imagine, as I peered at Mr. Sony Reader’s screen, in what sort of situation I would rather hold this alien creature in my hands than my old print stand-by. While screwing off at work? No, I accomplished that just fine with print books. While screwing off in class? Again, print worked great there, too. I don’t have a backyard pool to lounge next to, and why would I bother hanging out with Mr. Sony Reader on the couch when I could just cozy up with his print version?

I’ve read a number of articles in the past several months, in which the authors agonize over the e-book versus print book question, and unanimously conclude that e-book readers are a far superior way to read magazines, newspapers, and large books on the subway.

The subway. You may as well talk to me – and to many of the readers out here in the hinterland – about obscure Aboriginal initiation rites or the finer points of translating Thai to Yiddish. I’ve never been on a subway, or even seen one. Public transportation is not a reading venue – or any venue whatsoever – out here in the Wild West, where we seem to be perfectly muscular enough to carry a book in our bags without straining under the weight.

Having magazines and newspapers and whatnot delivered straight to Mr. Sony Reader does, I admit, sound convenient. But doing so robs you of half the joy of reading them, which is the ability to prominently display the cover of The Economist to everyone around you, just to make certain they all know you are brainy enough to read it. It also renders one of my favorite waiting room pastimes extinct: judging other people by what they are reading. People Magazine? (“Idiot.”) The Nation? (“Freaking socialist.”) New Moon? (“Snort.”)

I can, however, see one major advantage of owning an e-book reader: digital library checkouts. Many of these e-libraries have nifty features that shut off the borrower’s access to the book when the magic lending time has expired. Do you realize how much money I would save in overdue fines with this sort of built-in firewall? Why, I might even be able to save enough money to buy a couch like that one in the e-reader video.

In the end, I stood Mr. Sony Reader up. Even though our meeting had been amicable, I left the store without him. I returned, happily, to my very un-immaculate living room and my teetering piles of print books. E-book readers are going to have to try a lot harder if they’re going to succeed in luring me away.