The new member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) looked sheepish. "Um, I know you ladies don't approve, but I'm thinking of buying a Nook," she said. Some looked puzzled, and a quick tutorial on ebooks ensued. Then Nili Olay, JASNA's New York Metro Region cochair, showed she had her heart in both the 19th and 21st centuries. "Why shouldn't we approve?" she asked. "We want everybody to read as much as they can, any way they can."
Olay had a point. If you're devoted to the classic novels the modern world has arguably messed with the most, why should you scream heresy when you now find them accessible electronically?
In fact, Austen devotees have already seen her works invaded by the undead (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and the water-logged (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters). Faced with such indignities, some adapted and others complained.
Not surprisingly, Janeites are also highly sophisticated, knowledgeable readers. They remember the names of minor characters in the Austen oeuvre (Darcy's cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice - that's for amateurs! How about Darcy's housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds?), and are willing to entertain the theory that the oh-so-reserved Jane Fairfax is secretly pregnant in a shadow version of Emma. So they're a good test of how the most literate are adapting to the electronic book.
Polled during a discussion group of roughly 15 JASNA members, only three identified themselves as regular ebook readers. Yet these three were enthusiastic e-cheerleaders, using words like "love" to describe their relationship with the devices.
Linda Dennery, executive vice president of benefits at Advance Newspaper Group, must keep up with the latest in media professionally, so she has both a Kindle and an iPad.
Ann Herendeen enjoys her Kindle, "but when I'm reading a book between Austen and escapist trash, it drives me crazy," she said. If she's looking for a certain scene that isn't searchable by an easy keyword, she'd rather flip through physical pages than slowly go through electronic ones. "It's like reading through a narrow hole, a periscope that illuminates one spot only," she said.
Olay is an economical ebook reader: She uses her iPhone rather than a dedicated e-reader, and the volumes she reads are free because they're in the public domain. She'd just finished reading Daisy's Aunt by E.F. Benson and was currently in the midst of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.
Others in the group were yet-to-be-convinced that ebooks have value - like Marilyn Goldfried, who gave perhaps the most erudite counterpoint possible to Olay's testimony on the beauty of packing just one small device to fulfill all your literary vacation needs. Goldfried reported that when Noel Coward was on a cruise, he lightened his book burden by throwing pages into the water as he finished reading them.
Olay, noting another e-advantage, said, "You don't need a bookmark; it always keeps your place for you automatically."
"But let's not exaggerate the problem of using bookmarks," Goldfried quickly retorted.
"Well, I'm always losing bookmarks," Olay came back.
June Shapiro was more of a Luddite than many in the group, noting "I don't trust a computer at all, and I would probably throw a mobile phone across the room." And yet she said, "Good for anybody who reads Austen, any way."
Dennery, perhaps the most tech-savvy, related a story about how quickly habits can change: "I was reading a 'real' book a few weeks ago, and when I closed it, I went to turn it off in the back."