Blackout Edition: Or, Try That With Your Digital Gadget, Fan Boy!

“I haven’t played a video game in months,” my daughter claims, as if she succeeded in some 12-step program. “I think Skyrim burned me out.” For those of you without a 20-year-old vid-game prodigy daughter, Skyrim is an epic Xbox role-playing game that can take over a hundred hours to explore fully. “I spend all my spare time reading now,” she says. This from a girl for whom Lara “Tomb Raider” Croft was her first childhood heroine. Before she could master the controller, she used to replicate Lara’s jumping moves on the couch while I played the game on the living room floor. When she did get her hands on the controller, however, my daughter was the neighborhood badass, spitting fan boys out when they challenged her to live or online Halo contests. “Jeez, that is a girl,” I would overhear on the multi-player voice chatter as she mopped the arena with another deathmatch victim.”

I couldn’t get her to finish even a surefire teen angst classic. “Sorry, Dad, but I really don’t like Catcher in the Rye,” she announced one day, knowing this would make it that much harder for me to grasp who my daughter really was. “God, Holden is just irritating.”



So now that she is reading Frank Herbert, Mary Shelley and Haruki Murakami (didn’t see this coming), I recommend that she can sample and read all of this stuff on her iPad.

“Nah, I like the books,” she claims. “I don’t like reading on a screen.”

Who is this person? Is this the same daughter we need to yank from SMS at dinner? Is this the girl who memorized every episode of Spongebob Squarepants? Where is the Halo assassin I thought I raised? Is this a new form of youthful rebellion -- going all analog on her gadget-encrusted Dad?

A day without power here in the Northeast is probably the best time to contemplate the enduring value of non-electronic media. Or at least I can do as much contemplating as my laptop battery allows before giving up the ghost. Prepare for a lot of unintended irony here.

In fact, I have been trying my own little experiment with comparing digital and print media for a while now, but with complex results. Since the arrival of the iPod many years ago and then the iPad, these gadgets have been my companions for the morning aerobic ritual on the stair-climber. They replaced my decade-long strange penchant for reading physical books on my exercise machine, a feat that astonished even me when I started getting into the habit. Using a Rube Goldberg-like holder for managing massive tomes on a bookstand (because Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon just won’t fit the standard gym magazine stand) I got strange looks from my daughter and her friends for years. I think my ex-wife may have cited this tendency of mine as grounds in the divorce.

I resisted trying ebooks on Kindle and iPad for years, presuming my dislike for long-form reading on the desktop would transfer to the smaller LCD. When I finally forced myself to try a full novel on the iPad during the morning exercise regimen, however, I never looked back. Suddenly I had an hour a day of reading time that I thought had been lost forever.

In the last year I have torn through a stack of fiction and non-fiction, including a re-read of half the Dickens library of major works. I deliberately paired my revisiting of Copperfield, Dorrit, Mutual Friend and Curiosity Shop on the iPad by switching off iPad reading with the elaborately printed Nonesuch editions of the same books. Recently re-issued, these fat, thick-paged versions of Dickens’ final corrected copies of the text represent one of the last arguments for the uniqueness of print. There is a fundamentally different experience to immersing myself in the peculiar tactile environment of print reading, especially when the book itself is so lovingly crafted. One progresses differently through physical pages. The price we pay for variable fonts and the responsive design of an ebook is a lack of craft and care. These works feel poured into a container that we shape rather than the author and publisher.

The authorial voice and abstract structure of the story and characters remain the animating force even on an LCD, but that authority is not reinforced in the guided nature of layout, font choice, etc. Not to be precious, but in reading the magnificent Nonesuch editions of Our Mutual Friend or David Copperfield, the hand of Dickens seems to communicate and control the experience from multiple channels. I feel more in the master’s hand when I move to print. Which is to say that the digital book does with literature what digitization appears to have done in many areas of media and marketing: it gives the reader/user more control at the expense of the authority or control of the author/maker.

Consider, however, that without the iPad becoming a reader for my morning workouts, I likely would not have embarked on a massive re-read of Dickens in the first place. The technology helped me find a new space, which I could fill with a longstanding passion that time and circumstance cast aside. And consider, I never would have purchased the otherwise pricey Nonesuch Dickens print companion volumes unless Amazon made it easy to find cheaper used copies in its long tail of online merchants from around the country.

The interplay between digital and analog is complex and fascinating. The ways in which we humans ourselves bounce among the many channels are still unformed as we all discover niches of our lives (use cases) for different media experiences. Who would have guessed that six months of Skyrim would move my daughter to…Washington Irving?

“I just finished Washington Irving,” she says. “Really liked him.”

Oh, crap -- now I am going to have to reread “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to know what is up with my daughter? I don’t think even I liked Washington Irving. But somehow I feel that if she is going to engage her father’s passion for great novels, I need to tag along.

And of course she sent me this praise of a two-century-old novelist via text message.  I told you there would be irony.

“I want to try War and Peace. Think I will like it?”

Oh, no -- not the patronyms. Anything but the patronyms. 

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