In “Snoopers on Subway, Beware Digital Books,” Susan Dominus of the New York Times points to the ways in which books act as social signifiers and the ways in which Kindles and other e-book readers challenge that particular moder of signification.
Trying to get a read on people who are reading is one of those aimless but satisfying subway pleasures that may eventually go by the wayside, like scanning the liner notes on the way home from Tower Records. The Kindle, an Amazon electronic book reader, may make getting your hands on a book faster, but in the process, it could “make it a lot harder to indulge in the crucial cultural task of judging books — and the people who read them — by their covers,” wrote the columnist Meghan Daum in The Los Angeles Times last fall.
The Kindle may rob New Yorkers of a subway pastime that’s more specific to this city: judging people’s covers by their books. That young guy slouched in his seat, with the hoodie pulled tight over his head — his posture suggests sheer indifference. The book in his hand, “Egyptian Cosmology,” suggests something otherwise (to guess what, exactly, would require a passing familiarity with Egyptian cosmology).
This goes along with my general sense of reading as a signifying act in an of itself, and that books function socially to communicate much more than information. Most of the stuff championing e-books emphasizes their superiority at delivering information. That MAY be true. I’m reading Treasure Island on BookGlutton–admittedly not a dedicated e-book reader but an e-book nonetheless–and I’m not totally convinced. More on that in the future. When I actually manage to finish Treasure Island, that is.
Still, I think the emphasis on books as an information delivery system misses the point that these systems themselves function as cultural artifacts and so themselves enable certain forms of communication just by being, regardless of the information that they contain.
Dominus goes on to say:
Of course, the Kindle won’t stop people from reading in public, but it might make that potentially public act seem oddly private. And we risk stripping reading of the extra work it does, enlightening us about the curiosities of the people with whom we so often seem to share space and nothing else.
I think this is right in a peculiar way. I’ve mentioned on this space before my sense that I am the only person in the coffeeshop who reads books anymore. This lends itself to a particular sense of isolation that has nothing to do with the peculiarity of my activity. Buddhists meditating together are “isolated” in one sense, but the shared silence–or chanting–is a form of cultural communication nonetheless. I feel more distinctly isolated from a person on a laptop than I do from a person reading a book. This may be irrational, but is a fact nonetheless.
Computer use does not serve the purpose of bonding me to the people in my immediate vicinity in the way that reading a book in the library or the bookstore does, or at least seems to do. In a peculiar way, the computer connection homogenizes my cultural spaces. They are all equally points of connection elsewhere, as if the laptop turns everyplace in American into a strip mall–the strip mall that homogeneous space wherein every American can feel they are familiar but alienated.