Monthly Archives: July 2011

Remember When People Read Only Physical Books?

These are dark days for the physicality of books.  Sales of physical books are falling further and further beneath the sales of the light and snappy e-books.  Brick and mortar bookstores are closing across the nation.  Wood and straw bookstores have been blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.   Depressing news indeed.

The first book I ever remember reading was Make Way for Ducklings.  It was a big, dark green hardcover with a gold seal on the front.  I used to take it to bed with me, and hold it under the covers.  That was my habit with all my favorite books growing up, and it was not until I was sleeping with Introduction to Statistical Mechanics in 11th grade that my parents felt the need to intervene.

I was always very careful about my books.  I had certain rules.  A college classmate once wanted to borrow my copy of Utopia.  I agreed to let her take temporary possession, but only upon her following my rules.

“Don’t open the book any wider than absolutely necessary, so that the spine does not crack.”

“Okay.”

“And try not to hold the book too much.  Unless you are actually reading it, the book should lie flat on a hard surface, not too close to an open window, in case of rain, and not too close to a radiator.  Heat can ruin the laminated cover.”

“Okay.”

“And if you absolutely must carry the book somewhere, hold it in your hand, but only if you can refrain from bending it.  A lot of people have that tendency, I’ve noticed, during periods of stress or excitement.  If you feel like you are entering one of those periods of stress or excitement, put the book inside of a backpack or satchel, but be very careful.  Place it in the bag so that the spine is down and parallel with the ground, so that the corners do not get smushed by the sides of the bag.”

“Um, okay.”

“The best and safest place for a book,” I continued, “is a boofshelf.  But bookshelves have their own pitfalls.  For example, if there are too many books on one shelf, do not try to squeeze the book in between a small space.  Otherwise the friction from the adjacent books as you try to squeeze it in will cause the book’s front and back covers to fold over, and once that happens…” I shuddered.  “Just be careful, all right?”

She gave me the book back the next day.  “I just couldn’t handle all the rules.  I’m going to the bookstore now.”  I caught her reading Utopia at the dining hall the next day, with the cover folded over.  I shielded my eyes and ran out the door, appetite lost for the evening.

I was not a fan of the Kindle when it first came out.  I remember telling my mother how stupid the device sounded.

“I mean, who wants to read a book on an electronic device?  You don’t even get to turn the pages.”

“Oh, I think it sounds really cool.  How much is it?”

“$349.”

“Well,” my mother said, “I’ll split it with you if you want one.”

And that how I ended up with a Kindle for $349.  And I admit, it was pretty cool for a while.  I downloaded hundreds of free books—Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare—and marvelled at the library I held in my hand.

“Look, Dad,” I said to my father, “this Kindle holds hundreds and hundreds of books!”

“How many of them have you read?”

“That’s not the point.”

But in the end he was right.  I found that reading from the Kindle did not yield the same satisfaction as reading from a physical book.  Percentages and locations were sterile metrics compared to page numbers.  And somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that because the book really wasn’t there, but was just a temporary arrangement of electrons, that I was not really reading the book, and that when I shut the Kindle off for the night, and the words disappeared from the screen, the meaning would disappear from my brain as well.

So I’m back to reading physical books.  Sure, they’re heavier, and more expensive, and take up space that certain household members believe would be better spent on vases and bowls of plastic fruit.  But in this crazy and forgetful world, physical books assure that knowledge, meaning, and beauty are eternal.  Just so long as the spine is uncracked.

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Remember Telephone Books?

I was reading The Information, by James Gleick, and came across this passage on page 194:

“[Telephone books] went obsolete, effectively, at the turn of the twenty-first century.  American telephone companies were officially phasing them out by 2010; in New York, the end of automatic delivery of telephone directories was estimated to save 5,000 tons of paper.”

What are small children going to sit on when they are too big for high-chairs, but too small to reach the dinner table by sitting on a regular chair?  Copies of the The Information?  Whatever the effects are, this intelligence reminded me of a story, as told to me by a friend.  This is what he said:

“I always thought it was so nice of the telephone company to distribute free copies of the telephone book to the doorstep of each house.  Every summer these yellow directories would magically appear, as if to say, ‘Your telephone company loves you.’

“On delivery day, I could see the books in front of every home.  But the homeowners, for some reason, were not always that anxious to adopt the books, and often left them out there for a day or two.  I smelled opportunity, and one year I went out and stole every copy of the telephone book that had been delivered in our neighborhood.

“Under cover of night I went door to door, grabbing the yellow tome before the homeowner awoke or dog started barking.  It was tedious work. I could not carry more than two or three under each arm, and so had to make frequent trips back to my house.  I stored the telephone books in my closet, and when I was done there was not much room for my clothes.

“I remember exactly how the telephone books looked in my closet.  Five-foot stacks that shoved my pants and shirts aside.  The pristine spines glowed like bars of gold with advertisements for personal injury lawyers.  I thought about the thousands of names and addresses and telephone numbers of people I would never know.  I thought about all of the pizzerias and locksmiths and hardware stores and roofers and orthodontists that were nestled in next to my old sneakers and a stop sign I stole over spring break.  I thought about all of the trees that had been cut down to make these telephone books, and that by stealing them I was saving the trees, in a way.

“But what I did not think about was how I was going to keep these stacks of books a secret during a time when I still lived with my parents and did not do my own laundry.  I guess I should have thought about that. 

“I would later tell my mother, upon questioning, that I did not know why I stole the telephone books.  Grown-ups always got annoyed when kids said they did not know why they did something bad.  But in my case it was true; I really did not know.  It just seemed like the thing to do.  The phone books were free of charge, in the open, not nailed down, and easy to spot in the dark.  In the summer, when there was nothing to do, this was something to do that did not entail hopping fences.

“With a little less MTV and a little more foresight, I might have told my mother that I was helping train my neighbors for a time when telephone books would no longer be distributed.  I was doing them a favor!  But instead I gave my stock answer: I looked at the ground and said, ‘I don’t know.’  I thought about that answer as I returned the telephone books to each and every neighbor that night.”

Had my friend continued I’m sure he would have concluded his tale by saying that he learned a valuable lesson; that no amount of midnight mischief is worth depriving one’s neighbors of their means of communication.  But at that moment his cell phone rang.  He picked it up and said, “Hello?…Really?  The Verizon guy just left the modem sitting on their stoop?…I’ll be right there,” and then left, pleading a prior engagement.

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Remember When We Didn’t Have Piles of Chargers and Power Cords?

When I was a kid there was a power outlet next to my bed.  I had no need for power strips or outlet multipliers because I only had two devices to plug in: my alarm clock, and a reading lamp that I used to heat up the thermometer whenever I wanted to play sick, just like Elliot did when he wanted to stay home with E.T.

Today, I can’t take two steps in my house without stepping on a power charger or cord.  A charger for my Kindle, a charger for my laptop, a charger for my digital camera, a charger for my old digital camera (a Canon ELPH that cost me $500 in 2002 and which now gets the cold shoulder from every current operating system), a charger for the portable external hard drive, a charger for the electrical drill I’m forced to use whenever a blind needs hanging or a neighbor needs a root canal, a charger for the digital camcorder, a charger for the digital speakers, a charger for the steam mop, a charger of unknown chargee—so far behind the buffet that reaching it is not worth the health insurance deductible—and, last but by no means least, a charger of the purest white for my beloved iPhone.

These chargers and power cords congregate in a giant knot by the outlet.  My wife dislikes these piles and is always trying to find ways to hide them.

“Mark,” she asks, “what are we doing about that pile of phone chargers in the corner of the living room?”

“What pile? What chargers?”

She pointed to the pile of black wires. If the scene had been out of a movie I probably would have chuckled and then mentally scolded the owner of the house for creating a fire hazard.  But I was not in a movie and I didn’t chuckle.  This was my life and it wasn’t funny.  I explained that we couldn’t just move the wires because they were hooked up to things that could not be moved.

“Now, explain to me again how the modem affects where we can move the phone.  We have cell phones.  What do we even bother with a land line anyway?”

I told her that the only way that would be possible would be to put something in front of it the entire time, because to move the wires was not reasonably practicable.  That would end the discussion.

“Well, smart guy, I guess you’re going to have to stand in front of it the entire time.”

And that’s how I found myself standing in one spot for hours on end, like one of the guards at Buckingham Palace, except instead of a busby on my head there was a bowl of Tostitos in my arms, containing at its center a smaller bowl filled with salsa.  Our guests come by me and dip some chips.  I was amused at how often they succumbed to the pressure to talk to me.  Most of them I did not know me that well, and struggled with the awkwardness.  A few gave up.

Then there was the time that I tried to unplug my cell phone and ended up unplugging the Tivo, ruining my wife’s taping of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.  “That’s my favorite one,” she said.  “I can’t believe I’m going to miss it now.”  I suggested she put an ad on Craig’s List for someone who taped that episode.

“It’s not a tape.  I’ve told you this like a million times.  What are you, stuck in the 80s?”

Eventually, the cords and chargers end up in a closet or in the basement.  Deep down I know that the exiled cords and chargers will never be used again, but I am too scared to throw any one of them out.  To throw out the charger is to throw out the device itself.

I spend at least 12 hours a week untangling the wires for all of the power cords in the living room.  There must be a way to monetize that skill.  People should want to line up and pay $5 a head to watch me untangle power cords and cell phone chargers.

I suppose, though, that I should not complain about the mess of chargers when the devices do so much.  Instant communication, instant information, instant access, instant video, instant gratification—a small unsightly pile of tangled black plastic wires and domestic strife is a small price to pay for such wonders.

Do you have a knotty pile of cords and chargers in your home?  How do you cope?

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Growing Old With Derek Jeter

The cover of the June 26th issue of the New York Times Magazine featured a candle that looked just like Yankees’ shortstop Derek Jeter, holding a bat as if waiting for the next pitch from, perhaps, a candle that looked like Tim Wakefield.  The Jeter candle was lit, and navy blue rivulets of melting wax ran from the hat down the pin-striped uniform into the butter cream frosting.

The story, titled “For Derek Jeter, on His 37th Birthday,” was about how the Yankees’ captain, who turned 37 on June 26, has been in a type of hitting slump known as “aging.”  The fancy scientific reason the beloved Yankees’ captain has not been as productive behind the bat, whether made of ash or candle wax, is because of age-related degradation in his fast-twitch muscles.  Jeter now, apparently, requires a full half-second to decide whether to swing at a 90 m.p.h. pitch, rather than the mere quarter-second required in his 20s and early 30s.

I wonder how my fast-twitch muscles are faring these days.  I notice that I am not squashing bugs as quickly as I used to.  When driving, I do not swerve around roadkill as deftly as I once did.  And it now takes me a full two seconds to change the channel whenever that annoying commercial for Progressive Insurance with Flo comes on, whereas I used to change it almost instantaneously.

I remember when my parents turned 37.  I noticed that my father was taking a few extra seconds to pull the car over to the side of the road to yell at me for tormenting my brother with the business end of a seat belt.  And when I went to the supermarket with my mother, I could swap the Cheerios with Fruity Pebbles before she could turn her head.  I felt bad taking advantage of my parents’ aging, but Mariano Rivera would have done the same thing.

All around me I see evidence of age-related degradation of fast-twitch muscles.  Insurance adjusters taking a few minutes longer to reject my claim.  Cops taking a few extra seconds to flip on their lights when I go flying by them at roughly the same speed as a major league pitch.  Even the worker at the deli I frequent—he couldn’t have been a day over 32—did not react quickly enough to my direction of no onions when making my sandwich, leaving me to pick them out myself.

When I was younger I was always very fast at tying my shoes.  If I was inside watching television and heard, say, the ice cream man coming down the block, I would have my sneakers on and tied inside of 15 seconds, faster than it took my mother to say that I wasn’t getting any ice cream until I scraped the Silly Putty off the ceiling.

Just the other day I was lying in bed and heard the sound of the garbage truck coming down the block, and I realized, with a panic, that I’d forgotten to put out the paper garbage.  Naturally terrified at the prospect of going another two weeks with a mountain of Penny Savers and empty boxes of Count Chocula overflowing the blue bin in my garage, I leaped out of bed and ran downstairs.  I didn’t care if my hair was sticking out in several different directions, and  I didn’t care if my neighbors saw me in my Spider Man pajama pants.  But I didn’t dare go barefoot; that’s a good way to get a splinter.

I tied my sneakers as fast as I could, but something was missing.  Like the unnamed scout observed about Derek Jeter, my hands were slower, and my feet were slower.   I now know that a hundredth of a second separates not only a line drive to center field and foul tip into the stands, but also an empty blue recycling bin and a full one.  As I dove in vain towards the departing truck, I heard the sanitation worker say, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

So to Derek Jeter, I say: Happy birthday, hope you get your 3,000th hit, and invest in some Velcro cleats.

Have you noticed any degradation in your fast-twitch muscles or in the fast-twitch muscles of the people around you? 

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