Wednesday, December 30, 2009

To Kindle or Not to Kindle: A Holiday Mix

The editor of a literary journal recently asked me about my thoughts on emerging technologies such as the Kindle reader (the Kindle reader? Is that like saying CD-ROM instead of CD? High definition instead of Hi-Def? Home Box Office instead of HBO?). In response, I said I feel like an old man wrapped in a twenty-seven-year-old body, meaning I prefer the good old fashioned door-stop of a novel, want nothing to do with the Kindle, and if you put one in my hands I’m going to search it for the mark of the beast. Why do I fear the Kindle? I can’t say. Really. I’ll admit, my feelings are about as founded as those of a neighbor I once had—a real purist—who insisted on keeping his VCR around because, as he said, “he just wants the movie. None of that fancy fluff.”

Is that it? Am I afraid of the fancy fluff?

It’s not that I’m not technologically savvy. I mean, I can work a computer, can Google just about anything, do most of my research on Wikipedia, use YouTube as both a noun and a verb, and the moment I step out the door, you better believe I’m walking the streets in my own little iPod music video. So maybe it’s time I quit whining and get with the program. After all, authors are beginning to write exclusively for Kindle (Stephen King just wrote a novella about a pink Kindle that picks up signals from alternate universes, which will only be available for, you guessed it…Kindle).

And if I’m willing to, for example, give out an iPod as a gift (complete with my own special mix of songs, which, yes, I agree is a bit presumptuous), then why stop there? Why not pass out Kindles, pre-uploaded, of course, with “books” from my favorite authors, for everyone’s reading/viewing pleasure. To further this hypothetical—and to prove to myself that I am not an old man but a young buck who can text eighty-six words per minute—here it is: my gift of the Kindle (the Kindle? Or just Kindle?) to each and everyone, complete with a “mix” of books I found especially powerful this year:

1.) War Dances, by Sherman Alexie
This collection of short stories and poems is equivalent to that one song that makes you feel real tough and sensitive at the same time. Blast this from your Kindle and the (graduate school) girls will go wild.

2.) The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, by Breece D’J Pancake
Only hardcore short story readers will know who this incredible writer is, and what his first, and only, collection (published post-mortem) is all about. This collection will gain you instant street cred. And like a Raymond Carver story, these stories are usually about nothing, until they are.

3.) A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
This beautifully-written novel takes place in a post-9/11 world in which the academic bubble has been popped, thus exposing all of its once safe, oblivious, and self-satisfied occupants to an ugly, indefinable world. It’s that one beautifully constructed song where you’ll hear something different upon each listen.

4.) The Space Odyssey Series, by Arthur C. Clarke
This cosmic magnum opus—though you could really read the first novel, 2001, and then skip right to the final installment, 3001—will either inspire night-long discussions on humanity’s role in the greater history of the universe, or weird looks and wedgies. But with the weight of the very final line of the first novel—a line even more memorable and devastating than, “My God, it’s full of stars!”—it should inspire the former, especially in these times.

5.) As She Crawled Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem
This quirky little novel creates a love triangle between man, woman, and black hole, to the point where—metaphor or not—it doesn’t matter. It’s just too much fun. It’s that song that will make you feel light as air, young, hip, and oddly affectionate toward your high school physics textbook.

6.) The Women, by T.C. Boyle
This novel, penned by a man who writes in a hybrid style of Charles Dickens and Johnny Rotten, tells the story of Frank Lloyd Wright through the eyes of his many women, which, to make things even more complex, is a narrative re-created second-hand by a Japanese immigrant who worked for FLW. Boyle’s prose is flawless from a technical point of view—though his wordy, fast-paced, and often overwhelming style is better suited, perhaps, for short stories—and the novel itself is, like, multi-layered, man.

7.) Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett
This is the devastating memoir Oprah should have chosen way-back-when. It's about an extremely destructive friendship between two women and it likens to that one love song that sometimes isn’t a love song at all, depending on your mood, but a hopeless tragedy instead where you find yourself screaming at the characters to stop already--enough!--but then, somehow, it’s a love song again.

8.) All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma
This collection of short stories received the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. While at the Workshop, I remember reading this manuscript among a slush pile of over four-hundred and knowing instantly it was going to the winners circle. Buy it now. The title is only the beginning of all the funny, don’t-look-now-but-your-heart-is-broken family crisis content inside. Perfect holiday fare.

9.) Brownsville, by Oscar Casares
A monkey head! A fireworks stand! A boy’s pre-pubescent affair with an older next-door neighbor! The miracle tree! This first time collection of short stories by this Texas man will read like a macho manifesto, until you realize that it is this very machisimo that is the hairy antagonist throughout.

10.) Faithless: Tales of Transgression, by Joyce Carol Oates
What more is there to say about the Queen of Letters? This often over-looked collection of stories about, well, transgressions, is juicy, dark, sexy, weird, gross, beautiful, ugly, terrifying, and, like all of Oates’ work, plain old fascinating. It’s like that album you used to have to hide from your parents because, judging by the surface alone, they’d think you a pervert. Which you are.

There it is. And of course, just like a mix of music, someone can perhaps look at this compilation and come up with a general conclusion about my tastes (and what would I call this mix? What would they call this mix?). That’s fine. Maybe that’s what the Kindle can offer us that books cannot: a quick, scrollable glance of all that makes us, us. Without all that fancy fluff.


Jennifer Ruden said...

I enjoyed this very much and also your story in BMR. I hate my i*pod, so I think I'd probably dislike the Kindle as well. I like to read over people's shoulders in the airport and, when on the plane, I look at the books people are reading and then comment on them to my husband. That darn Dan Brown, I'll tell him, people eat that sh*t up. The Kindle makes this commentary impossible.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jennifer. I, too, am a notorious book eavesdropper. Just yesterday I spied on the train someone reading a curiously jacket-less book that, upon closer view, I saw was the new Dan Brown book. I suppose this self-conscious reader might benefit from the anonymity of the Kindle...


POD said...

I own a kindle and love it. I would not like it if someone found it and knew what I was reading and I have handed it over to folks who've asked to see it so it's not the worst thing in the world. Though I'd feel slightly violated to have my choices revealed.

But to be able to download the first chapters of books prior to buying the entire book is fantastic. Another perk is the dictionary, where you're reading along and one of those words you read all the time but skim over, appears. You can look it up right then on the kindle. You probably think 'big deal.' ;-) But it is a big deal.

I spent most of my adult life working in libraries, first college, then moving to corporate. I'm a huge fan of reading.

In acquisitions, I'd often spend far too much time smelling the inside of those books though some of them give off a delicious odor. One of the smelliest books ever was published in India on very strange paper, those many books give off a perfume like nothing. The biggest drawback to the Kindle is it doesn't give off an odor like an old book might. A great gadget for instant gratification nuts too. I'm sure the marketers had that planned well in advance.

If you have to read a kindle in the bath, put it in a plastic bag first. This is no different than taking your paper book in the bath. I bring that up because some of my librarian/book store owning friends have scoffed at the idea of a kindle in a tub.

A. E. Santi said...

I love that by roping Kindle into your post you managed to give an update to the old trope of your top ten books and reshape it digitized. Wonderful post and wonderful recs Steven, I am going to go download some of those on my iPhone and read em'.