Recently I read an issue of the New Yorker on my new Kindle Voyage e-reader and something strange happened. I didn’t get some of the cartoons. As a long-time reader of the print version of the magazine, I was in the habit of skipping over the dense columns of articles and gleefully making a beeline for the single-panel ‘toons for a bit of urbane wit at the end of a long week. But when two of the funnies landed with a thud, I wondered just what was going on.
Oh, I had no problem grokking the one with the medieval guard chastising his buddy, “I’ve asked you not to use the siege tower to meet women,” or the Sumo wrestler bear-gripping his opponent while whispering, “Full disclosure—I really need this hug.” But I wasn’t sure about the guy telling his wife, “The utility bills for my secret other life are going through the roof.” I just squinted at it. Same thing on the next cartoon. What was going on?
It was the Kindle, right?
Maybe there was fallout to funneling the magazine’s voluminous content into a six-inch window on a device that could balance perfectly in the the L-shaped crook of your fingers as you lay in bed. Which is why I’d bought the thing in the first place. No more weighty, flapping, dust-emitting pulp. Now I had something the size of a couple of graham crackers that could store every book I would ever want to read.
I tapped over to the New Yorker’s short fiction — which had always been too highbrow for me — and discovered another surprise. I was fully in, grinning as I read. Somehow the Kindle had made the lofty accessible. How? I hadn’t a clue.
Over the nights I began to fall for the device, reveling in each print-like 300-ppi e-Ink word (don’t ask). I tapped and I swiped, and I read, and tapped and swiped and read some more, rediscovering reading in a wholly unexpected place: a little screen.
But there was a deception in that screen. Sure, you knew a sizeable book or magazine was in there somewhere — the same way you know the Himalayas are on the other side of the globe. But without the physical mass, it doesn’t register. It’s a matter of trust, making it a different experience.
Even the magazine length was indeterminate: the number of pages swells and recedes with one’s choice of typesize. And forget about the comfort of page numbers. There aren’t any. Kindle content is always on the move, in flux, depending on your display choices — but at the same time, the words and images really don’t change.
If a printed New Yorker is a mountain, then the e-version is a river. And I was content to be carried right along. “We do not take a trip; it takes us,” went the John Steinbeck quote in one Voyage ad. Indeed. The Kindle marketeers were earning their pay.
Wide-eyed, I tapped on. Who would have guessed that the turn of a page could be accompanied by a tiny vibration (Did I really feel that?) for the comforting assurance of physicality. Or that you could view the highlighted passages of other readers across boundless cyberspace. Or that the device can reach up into the cloud for free sample chapters and Wikipedia entries while helpfully denying access you to your Facebook and Gmail accounts. Oh, technology! Oh product designers!
Finally I managed to suss out the cartoon mystery. The single-panel drawings, which had always appeared as welcome islands in the text-dense waters of the New Yorker pages, were all grouped together at the magazine’s end in the e-version, absent any surrounding text, and therein was my problem.
I was compensating, unconsciously. I was imagining all the missing print, and that distraction had thrown me off my funny bone. I couldn’t accept the old context was gone, the magazine’s decades-old cartoon-copy relationship radically shifted. (The Voyage’s sketchy graphics didn’t help, either.)
The price of progress, I told myself. Don’t be sore — you’ve got a very cool device, a low $7.99 monthly subscription fee, and zero chance of increasing the towering stack of New Yorkers collecting dust in a corner of my office. Be thankful.
I did manage that, and more. Over the weeks I bonded with the e-New Yorker, making many more discoveries along the way. The device did in fact bring the magazine down to size, pun intended. I’ll confess to having been awed by the highbrow patina and weighty nature of the New Yorker. Sometimes it was like dealing with a snob, or a bully, who, now in new and unknown territory, had no choice but to open up and be friendly. No, the words hadn’t changed. But they’d been touched and changed by technology. They had yielded to the humility required to reside on a device.
In any case, I’ll tell you this: my eyes will be wide open for the next surprise. Who knows what will be in store when I tap into Anna Karenina, minus the heft and living in the plasticity of cyberspace. Tolstoy could never have imagined this. Nor anyone. Sometimes the future’s surprises can challenge, flummox but, ultimately, delight.