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March 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 



After several years of deliberation, I finally purchased a Kindle. I now own my very own digital reading device which has all the books I can read on it. There’s lot that’s unsettling about the device, but that’s not entirely bad—just caused a bit soul searching. Getting the Kindle turned out to be a really big deal for me, and a revelation. For one thing, I realized how much I was an old man living through revolutionary times.

I am preparing for exiting this vail of tears, not right away, I hope, but soon enough. I’m stumbling down the last league. As a result, I no longer feel a compulsion to be on the cutting edge. I’ve lived long enough to see too many cutting edges come and go. One of the things that my friends know about me is that I’m quaint in my appreciation of music. I grew up turning pages for my concert pianist mother, especially when she played the Kreutzer. I played classical guitar until I was 13 or so and haven’t touched an instrument since.

But music never lost its magic. I just felt that there were others who could give it that magic better than I. When I got into my late teens, Jazz proved intriguing. Folk, blues, and the very greatest voices like Paul Robeson and Edith Piaf turned me on. Rock never made the cut. I rarely heard that much genuine genius in it, and mostly I saw it as an essentially corporate product. When Bob Dylan electrified his guitar, I lost interest.

It is sadly obvious that the digital transformation of our times are shaking things up like was done by Gutenberg and his Bible a few centuries back.

Printed books were really an incredibly comfortable and convenient medium—and may remain so forever, as far as I know. I’ve always enjoyed reading in bed, reclining rather than sitting, and holding a book in whatever is the best position at the moment. But let me tell you the simple truth that lies behind all great changes. They are based on simple things.

Print replaced men and women sitting at a desk with a quill, with no hope of their words getting around much. Then you could replace those quills with typewriters and typesetting machines and printing presses and give your words a whole new universe. Then there’s the digital revolution, which might end up being as important as the Gutenberg press.

For the last few years I haven’t been able to do much reading lying in bed. Mostly I read while sitting at a computer, and the thought of reading “War and Peace” there is most unattractive. Great books, I think, are meant to be read leisurely. I read enough journalism and the like while sitting down in front of my computer, but getting into a real book, that’s become another matter.

Let me explain. When I finally retire to my bed, and could maybe read a real book, I can’t because my African Gray Oliver and three cocktails also live in my bedroom. When I get home, they expect attention because with my appearance, the flock wants to celebrate that I’m home. That doesn’t mean reading a book.

This problem was easily solved by my wonderful new Kindle. I no longer have to keep a light on to read a “book.” The page provides its own life, and that’s enough. I remember back in my days, they used to sell reading lights, but they never really worked well. Finding a place to clip them to something proved to be a bigger problem than it should have been. True, with a Kindle, you can also read on the beach, with light spilling out from the heavens everywhere. Or you can read in the darkest closet, if you want. Here is where I made a revelation that might not seem so earth shaking at first, but it truly is.

Now I’m not blaming the parrots for having kept me from doing a lot of good, soul-satisfying reading of late—but maybe I am. It’s an issue of how could I read comfortably with the birds. When you get older, it’s hard to get comfortable. You have new aches and pains, you toss and turn to find the best position, whether you end up on your backside or front. But with a Kindle, which is lighter than most books, you can turn off the lights to quiet the birds down, and all the light in the world is only one place—the page you’re focusing on. Bird problem solved. I can now read the Bible and all of Shakespeare if I want and the birds don’t have to know the better.

My birds are tyrants. They want my undivided attention. Sometimes I have to say no. I’m not playing with you tonight. That means no putting them on my shoulder or rubbing their little heads. If the light stays off they’ll usually ignore me. But if even a small light is on so I can read, they pester me until I give up reading. They yap at me like ill-mannered canines, saying you’d better take me out or I will shit on your carpet.

Kindles break with tradition in one very big real way. There’s utterly no type design, no worry about kerning or face. I ran a book publishing company with my ex-wife Nigey Lennon with mixed results, and a few modest successes. It was a totally Un-Kindle kind of operation. We worried about fonts and type and paper and such the way theologians argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

I have worked in a lot of editorial offices. When I started out, we had clunky old Underwoods, and nasty typesetters in the back shop who hardly paid attention to our proofing marks. Today you can do everything from composing a story to editing it and then turning it into type yourself. No difficult and expensive and balky typesetters needed. You don’t have to direct the printer how to lay out the lead slugs. You do it on the computer. So it’s natural, perhaps, that creating “content” or “product” as they call us writer types nowadays, is not much admired. Nobody talks rhapsodically about “content providers.” So don’t mind if I still get a bit romantic about the good old days, when Mark Twain set his own type.

Reading on a computer is like working in a word factory—whereas luxuriating with a book that can take you to myriad parts of this universe, that’s a whole other thing. In my world, real reading needs to be done lying down, perhaps with your back propped up with velvet red pillows, and a glass of port nearby. You need to be unseemly comfortable. There’s nothing wrong in injecting some hedonism into the proceedings.

Now I can laugh now at how Nigey used to pour over the history of the fonts we used for the books we published. That was a major part of book publishing. Nigey would work for hours, matching not only the history but the psychology of the manuscript to the particular font’s history. She knew it was more art than science, but that didn’t make the task any the less urgent.

I’m afraid the Kindle made a mockery of all that. It has a very limited range of faces—more san sheriff faces, that all good typesetters know make for lousy reading. They have only one half-way decent serif face—Palatino. So I read everything from Sherlock Holmes to Mark Twain as well as my own book on the Kindle’s Palatino.

I use my computer screen to keep aware of the world, but as much as I defend journalism, and worship my mentor and former boss Scott Newhall, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle who believed that journalism should be nothing less than “daily literature,” I know there’s a difference between literature and journalism.

Before I got my Kindle, I did manage—over a period of months—to get through half of a Marquez novel, but it took me several weeks to do so—in fits and snatches, before I gave up. That wasn’t his fault, it was my damned birds. In the last few weeks since I got my Kindle, I’ve been getting a lot of reading done.

As a result of getting a Kindle, I’ve taken another giant step into the future. I’m toying with the idea of joining the ranks of people who are always staring down at their smart phone. Yeah, and I just bought an iPhone. But that’s a whole other later conversation.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books available at Amazon in paperback and ebook form. His titles include a novel, “The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn: A Mostly True Memoir of California Journalism,” and his nonfiction, including “Literary LA,” “The Fat Man on the Left,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” and “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey.”



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