Russell Smith on Literary Luddism

June 26, 2011 at 4:11 pm (Uncategorized)

This column appeared in Thursday’s Globe and Mail .

I’ve been in Chapters and picked up their e-book readers. Then I put them down again. I just can’t quite get my head around the idea. I love the book. The physical book. I understand if the hard copy weighs 8 pounds that an e-book might be appealing. Yet the pitch is carry your library around with you. I own an Ipod, so the library argument is superficially appealing, but I usually select a book I want to read on a trip to bring with me. Seldom am I so indecisive that I need to take 12 books with me (I don’t read that quickly either) .

Anyway, here’s Smith’s piece.


After hearing of the first self-published author to sell a million e-books on Kindle – the crime writer John Locke, who accomplished this feat last week – I knew I had to at least get an e-reader. I was already envious of my spouse’s e-reader: She had won a Sony Pocket Edition reader in a literary competition a few months earlier. It’s small and light and sleek, and I wanted it.

I watched her set it up. To read books on it, you need a computer, and then some software, and you don’t actually put all the books you buy on your device, you have them waiting for you on a Sony server and you access them with your computer and then put them on your reader through a unique USB cable.

Let me tell you about this USB cable: It is very rare. It is only available in-season and in certain specialty markets. If you lose it – which my spouse immediately did – you can no longer read. You may try, as she did, to go through all your boxes and drawerfuls of cables and plugs for all the other defunct devices in the house. You will find that all USB cables look eerily the same but are actually not. You may also, as she did, visit a series of electronic stores in a series of malls looking for this crucial piece of wire and buying substitutes that are promised to work and don’t, and you may well find this more enjoyable than reading. It is good exercise.

While she was going through this I was stuck into a crafty and hilarious and embarrassingly paper-based novel by Jessica Grant called Come, Thou Tortoise. I had bought this at a reading that the author gave. It took me a couple of weeks to get through, by which time my partner had obtained a brand-new MacBook Pro – another thing I was envious of. This combination of newest technologies – the superfast silver computer and the sleekest little silver reader – promised to be an exciting interaction.

But then she could download no books at all. The Sony e-reader is not compatible with the new Mac. She made a few long technical-support calls. The MacBook is too fast for the device, explained a technician, so you have to slow down your operating system. You change it from a 64-bit to a 32-bit kernel; no problem, you can change it back again when you need it to be fast.

It is of course useful for all of us to learn how to do such things with computers, and I should have paid attention, but I was on to another (embarrassingly paper) brilliant book: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? It’s part novel, essay and memoir and, like Jessica Grant’s book, it made me laugh out loud on several occasions. It was unfortunately not available yet at the Sony e-book store. Maybe some day. Anyway, my partner got onto the online forums and started deciphering the jargon-y suggestions about how to make your e-reader work with a Mac. (There is important information on these forums about sync-ing issues as caused by the auto-sync feature.) You can download a free program called Calibre that will translate all your e-book files into readable formats. Actually there are a couple of third-party e-book programs that you can download; there is a bit of research to do about this.

She did change the kernel, or whatever you call it, to 32-bit, and the thing worked for a day or so, but then the Mac automatically updated its operating system and it reset itself. No e-books could be opened – although she had paid for them and they were sitting waiting for her somewhere. She found and bought the rare and expensive USB cable, which is now useless.

I am currently almost through a poppy Taschen book called Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures, which is two volumes of short entries about famous photos. It is quite light in content but it does function well without a USB cable.

My partner finally solved the technical problem of the inaccessible books on the server: She went to a bookstore and bought them. Her technological education has now been interrupted by reading. We had better get back to our computer study soon, though; obviously the future of literature contains a great deal of electronics.


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