Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440 was a watershed moment in human history. But did it feel that way to those who were content with hand-written manuscripts?
Probably not. But by the turn of the 15th century, 15 million volumes had been printed. I think we're in a similar moment of history. Whether it's a Kindle, Nook or iPad, the electronic reader is here, and it's probably here to stay. Even though one in six Americans now owns an e-reader, naysayers abound. I'm by no means an early adopter, but the emergence of the electronic book feels inevitable, intuitive and altogether sensible. So I went and bought a Nook Color—a poor man's iPad.
Strangely, the argument against e-readers I heard most often was that they don't smell like books. This makes me a little insane. Books aren't olfactory devices. They're machines designed to transmit ideas. Do you think medieval monks missed the smell of vellum and parchment?
Actually, they probably did.
This summer, I read two of 2010's breakout books on my e-reader. I suspect Gary Shteyngart, the author of Super Sad True Love Story, shares some of my frustration.
In what is hopefully not the near future, Lenny Abramov returns to the United States after a sojourn in Rome and finds the country has changed. The economy is tanking, political rhetoric has turned toxic and corporations are taking over. No one seems to care because they're all too busy chatting on their apparat—a souped-up smartphone the size of a pearl. Sound familiar?
The only things that keep Lenny going are his infatuation with the young daughter of Korean immigrants, Eunice Park, and his love of books.
“I noticed that some of the first-class people were staring me down for having an open book. ‘Duder, that thing smells like wet socks,' said the young jock next to me, a senior Credit ape at LandO'LakesGMFord.”
Shteyngart is a gifted satirist, and the world he creates is equal parts horrifying and hilarious, but the love story that drives the novel never rises above the level of a farce. Not only are Lenny and Eunice wrong for each other; their grotesque flaws make them wrong for anyone we might empathize with.
The second e-book I read was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, which has won just about every major literary award—and deservedly so.
The book moves back and forth through time and loosely follows a kleptomaniac named Sasha. Her boss is a record executive named Bennie who used to be in a San Francisco punk-rock band, and if you're going to write about damaged people, punk rock is a great place to start. We see Sasha in various phases of her life, sometimes with her shit together, mostly not.
Goon Squad is not a novel; it's a linked collection of short stories whose organizing principle is the inevitability of time—i.e., the goon squad. The climactic story, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” is known as the PowerPoint story because it's constructed via the presentation software.
It's told from the point of view of Sasha's daughter and is about her brother, a boy obsessed with the parts of songs where nothing happens—in other words, pauses. The boy's father doesn't get it, but Sasha does, and in a pitch-perfect rant, she lets her husband have it and expresses the theme for the entire book. Now, this is a super-sad true-love story, and it nearly had me crying into my e-reader.
One of the few complaints about Goon Squad is that for a book “about” the industry, there's not much music in it. You can remedy that by checking out Tyler McMahon's debut novel How the Mistakes Were Made, set during two seminal scenes: D.C. hardcore in the early '80s and Seattle grunge in the early '90s. It's a convincing story that documents the rise and fall of a punk rock band called The Mistakes.
Speaking of mistakes, Dick Cheney Saves Paris, penned by local writer Ryan Forsythe, also deserves mention. His meta-fictional story of an alternate future serves as an exposé of the former vice president's adventures in time travel that will leave you wondering, What if—?
Both of these books were regular book-type books. While I enjoyed using my e-reader, it's been months since I've plugged it in. Maybe I'm not wired for it. Could it be my brain needs that combination of sharp ink and decaying fiber to recognize it as a book?
Time will tell.