THE YEAR IS 2001 and I am on the subway. It is the Number 1 train, going uptown, and I am heading to a reading of Slab Rat, my first published novel. (It’s my first ever reading, too, and I’m nervous.) It’s four in the afternoon and the car I’m on is not crowded. I see, directly across from me, a gorgeous, olive-skinned brunette sitting and reading a book. She’s not tall enough to be a model and not quite emaciated enough, but she is on the flawless side (her nose is a bit long, but who cares?). I swallow and tell myself not to stare and I follow through on it: I do not stare, for that would just be wrong. But then, while nobly avoiding eye contact, I see what book she is reading. It’s Slab Rat! Oh my God! She’s reading my book and, I can tell, she’s enjoying it, too. Perhaps she’s also on her way to the reading?
This opportunity, I quickly realize, is highly unlikely to ever occur again. I may never get another book published, and if I do ever get another book published I may not ever again see someone else reading it, and if I do ever get a book published and see someone else reading it, the person most likely will most likely not be, as this woman is, a dead ringer for Monica Vitti circa The Red Desert. Should I do something? Do I bust some sort of move? “You have to do something,” I hear a strange, anxious voice telling me. It’s my voice . . . and it’s saying: “This is one of the three reasons you became a writer in the first place, fool!” (The other two reasons being: 1) to write books that don’t sell well, and 2) because I can’t do anything else.) So, after the subway comes to a sudden stop between stations, I stand up and approach her and tell her that I am the author of the book that is currently reducing her to hysterics. She looks up at me, looks at the photo on the book jacket, and tears of delight quickly well in her eyes. She begins to melt.
The above scene did not happen. Of course it didn’t. First of all, I’ve never done a reading of any of my books, other than to myself. I did in fact get a novel called Slab Rat published in 2001 but I’ve never seen anyone read it on a subway or a bus or on a beach or in a café or anywhere else. I’ve also never caught anyone reading my next two novels and now I probably never will. And one of the reasons is…
The e-book reader. The Kindle. The Nook. And so on.
For all I know, I have seen people reading my novels. But with these blasted, newfangled, electrical, book-reading doohickeys, how would I ever know? Maybe yesterday the four people I saw gazing into their e-readers on the Number 1 train were all reading books of mine, but all I saw facing me were blank, bland, off-white or black rectangles. The back of an e-reader looks like a big-ass paint swatch (Almond Crème Vanillin), something you’d pick up at Janovic Plaza and show your spouse before throwing it out. The Kindle tells you nothing about the book that’s being read and therefore nothing about the person reading it. In the past, if I saw someone reading a book by John Grisham or Joyce Carol Oates or Kahlil Gibran or James Paterson or whoever wrote the Fifty Shades books, it told me everything I needed to know about that person in about a second. Now all I have to go by is what that person is wearing and what color and material they chose for their Nook case.
In Pocket Kings, my last book, I have a scene where the narrator, an oafish, miserable failed novelist, is walking around a pool, searching for a woman he met on a poker site and has been having a torrid online affair with. Their plan is that he will recognize her because she will be reading one of his books. As nobody ever reads his books, they know, the one person he sees bearing the paperback with his name on it must be her. And it is.
I don’t know if I could write that scene again. It’s gone the way of Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth—there are no phone booths anymore—or a junkie in a Ted Lapidus raincoat slurping on a Patio diet cola, waiting to meet his connection in an Automat or at the counter at Lamston’s. The last time I was at an island resort nobody around the pool was reading books. Well, they were but the books weren’t in paper form. That was encouraging, I thought at the time…at least people were still reading! But, for all I know, their eyes were glued to a pair of shoes on a Zappo’s page, and they weren’t actually reading at all.
I’ve never bought a book based on my having seen so many people reading it in public. As a matter of fact, the more I see people reading the same book, the more inclined I am to automatically dislike that book without ever having read a word of it. (If so many people like something, it has to be bad. Nixon did beat McGovern in a landslide, after all.) I remember seeing a lot of people reading The Corrections but I ended up buying and reading it anyway. I’m sure that publishers (and book cover designers) loathe the advent of the Kindle and Nook if only because, well, there goes a tremendous free source of advertising (the book on the lap, the book basking in the sun on the beach towel, the book bulging suggestively out of the handbag). That form of advertising, though, never worked for me.
I’ve waited this far into the present ramble but I’ll confess it now: A few months ago I bought an e-reader. My wife had gotten one and it looked interesting to me. And now I love the device. I’m getting old and my eyesight isn’t so dependable and I enjoy changing the font size. Sometimes I enjoy changing the font size more than I enjoy reading whatever book it is I’m changing the font size of. I do miss the crisp feel of turning a page, and I miss the easy-access page count and I miss the clear photos and maps: the first book I read on my gizmo was the third volume of William Manchester’s Winston Churchill biography and it would have been great to know I was on page 900 and not just 83 percent through with it. Now I go back and forth between paper and e-book; it is possible to live in both worlds. I feel fine reading a good old tangible, palpable, crumple-able, analog book, but I still feel a pang of guilt whenever I pick up the e-reader. It feels as though I’m betraying someone or something. But just who or what am I betraying? (Gutenberg? Myself? All of Western Civilization perhaps?)
The ultimate irony is that my new novel (West of Babylon) is only available in electronic form. I didn’t merely get hoisted by my own petard—my petard fell on me and shattered my skull. There will be zero chance I’ll ever see anybody reading my book. Zero. It will never, ever happen. I will never be able to sign anyone’s copy. (There won’t be a copy!) I’ll never experience the sheer delight (it has almost reduced me to tears) of walking into a bookstore and seeing a novel I wrote prominently displayed on a table in the front (or rotting away in the H section on a shelf next to Ernest Hemingway and Herman Hesse). There will be friends of mine who, because they’ll never buy an e-reader, will never read the book at all. But what’s crucial, what gives me some infinitesimal measure of hope, is that this book I wrote and slaved over every day and obsessed over for years will still be out there. Wafting in the either, zipping across USB cables, flickering on screens, bubbling up to the surface of the world. The book will be somewhere.