Loving Technology

Last year I wrote a piece about my interest in electronic reading called Learning to Read – Again. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about mechanical reading, but I was on the hunt for my first e-reader and, like most ad-smitten people, I was in love with Apple’s iPad. My main computer is a Mac, so it made some sense that I’d stay in the same techno-family. Off I’d go to the Apple store.  I’d play with the iPad, lift it, turn it over, admire it – then I’d go home.  I wasn’t ready.

This worried me because, at nearly 72, I do wonder how long I’ll be interested in keeping up with our fast-changing world, and especially with the technology involved with the two activities I love to do – read and write. How long will I have the capacity to learn these new challenging skills? Two years ago I sat at my computer awash in real tears of frustration because I couldn’t make the darn thing do my bidding. That I couldn’t make a decision about an e-reader made me wonder if I was afraid to learn to read in a new way.

My search became the source of much family merriment.  I treated this big purchase with the seriousness people devote to getting a rescue dog.  Last July, during a family dinner, my son-in-law John asked if I’d ever “gotten around to buying an iPad.”  After my sheepish no, he suggested a Barnes & Noble Nook.  It was love at first touch and 24-hours later I was reading my first e-book. The iPad is beautiful and popular but, since reading was my first interest, the shape didn’t feel good in my hand.  The Nook feels like a paperback and looks like a book.

So unlike my computer travails, I’ve taken to e-reading like that proverbial duck and I now read about half my books this way.  There are things I don’t like: It’s hard to go back and forth to read footnotes; “thumbing” back to look at pictures again is tough; and, many complete works aren’t well enough organized to allow you to get to the book or poem you want.  This last is as much about how you buy that book as not.  Always download the free sample before you buy, especially if it’s not a new book.  This is particularly true of the classics, many of which are available for free. The sample allows you to get a sense of whether the book is well organized and easy to navigate.

It took me awhile to feel comfortable reading magazines on my e-reader, but my growing ease lead to a new problem – the ability to buy a book in the middle of the night.  In a recent interview, when asked what’s on his reading list, Colin Powell complained that he downloads every book he thinks he wants to read and is now feeling overwhelmed by the number of books on his e-reader.  I can’t afford to be that excessive, but I have – more than once – spontaneously bought a book mentioned in an article I was reading.  A few quick taps with a finger and there you have it.  Amazing.

This shift in our reading is not only amazing, it is history-making. In the September 2, 2011, New York Times Book Review, Lev Grossman tells us this is only the third time in the history of reading that we’ve dramatically altered the way we do it.  First the scroll, then codex – the book as we know it today – and now, like ET, our finger gently pressed to a bright little screen.  The proof of the change is in the fact that in the first quarter of 2011, e-book sales were up 160%; print sales down 9%.

But, there’s more: When my phone contract was up about six months ago, husband Lee suggested I consider a Smartphone.  I couldn’t think of a good reason for having one since I get and make very few phone calls.  But I was interested in having a small camera and I do like having a cell phone, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to at least take a look. I love my iPhone even though the very last thing I use it for is talking.

This is how I use my iPhone:

It is my primary calendar and synced with my email calendar. My grandchildren text, so I text to stay in touch with them. I have an album of pictures of my family members, including some old pictures that I enjoy showing if I’m telling friends family stories.  Yes, I do use the surprisingly good camera.  I Google directions and actually use them.  I’ve pulled over and found business addresses when I couldn’t find what I was looking for driving up and down a road just looking for a sign.

Most surprising to me is that I haven’t handwritten a grocery list since I got the phone. I had great fun sorting through the free list-making apps until I found one that worked for me and allowed me to manage separate lists for the places I go most often.  And, I make all those little notes we all do when someone suggests a book or a good place to buy cheese on my iPhone notepad with that familiar  yellow lined paper.  No more pieces of paper in the bottom of my handbag, or even in the notebook I still carry with me.  The downside is that I use my small collection of nice pens less often.

I start the morning checking the weather either on my iPhone or the Nook.  Both have good weather apps and have put the early morning TV weather people out of business in our house.  I use the alarm clock, the stopwatch and the timer.  The latter keeps me from spending too much time in front of this screen, and allows me to time what I’m cooking and still sit outside in the garden or on the back porch.

I read the top New York Times stories and can read or listen to NPR and even save programs to listen to later. Of course I can do email and surf the web, but what I enjoy more are Pandora’s music and my own stash of music.  In the App world, I’m small time but I have added National Geographic maps, a map of New York City, The Weather Channel and a good medical information site called iTriage.  Oh, did I mention the flashlight?

The unexpected pleasure was learning that, with a free app, I could download every book I buy for the Nook onto the iPhone.

My New York habit was and still is to take four old New Yorkers to read on the train and toss as I go.  On my last trip I whipped through them fast enough that I was down to one for the trip home. While I love looking at the people in my train car and out the window at Harlem as we speed north, once we are out of the city I’m ready to settle down for the three-hour trip home.  It was noisy in my car so I put on my headphones and tuned up Verdi.  I finished my last New Yorker and decided to find out if I could listen and read.  YES!  I suppose there was something odd about listening to classical music while reading about Etta James’ tortured life, but I was in heaven.

Around Stamford I stopped reading and listening and thought about what I’d been doing.  I’ve made fun of people and their gadgets and complained that they’ve dropped out of being present to live in their own tiny, private worlds.  Earlier that day, hanging over the mezzanine railing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was fascinated by how many people were using some small piece of technology.  Heads down or devices to an ear, at first it seemed everyone was doing it.  Closer looking proved me wrong.  People were also looking around and talking to one another and moving in and out of galleries.

I suspect we are all resistant in some degree to every change that means we have to learn a new thing or change the way we think about how we’ve been doing what we do.  When I was considering a Prius, I heard the jokes and read those snide articles about people who want to be green and how imperfect this new technology is and that these cars weren’t all that cost effective.  I bought the car anyway and plan to drive it until it goes wheels up.

We each choose what works best in our lives.  We choose not to use our air-conditioning if we can help it.  We suffer heat waves with ceiling fans and open windows.  Like driving the Prius, it is one tiny way we can shrink our footprint. Given this perspective, irony could be found in my snapping open my Nook the other night when the heat kept me awake.  I was, after all, using batteries that ultimately rely on electricity.  It was satisfying to be able to read and not have to go to another room or wake Lee.  I read about Higgs-boson (I was sure that would put me right back to sleep.), then climate change articles on ThinkProgress.com (now I was really awake) and, finally, a wonderful Shirley Jackson short story – about the love of reading.

Time.com (in the July 6-13 issue of The Week) says that one in four people check their phones while driving; one in five right after sex; two in five take their phones into the bathroom with them; and, three in five don’t go an hour without checking their smartphones.  I don’t do any of these things, but I have integrated these two new electronic devices into my everyday life and they’ve become new, important tools in feeding my need to read and to stay in touch with an ever-changing world.  And in that way we love ALL our children, the very sight of a new hard- or soft-cover book still sets my heart ablaze with expectation.

Each day, like that bumblebee going from flower to flower, I go from one source to another happily getting brain food in each place.


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