This morning I came across a product that I was invited to buy on Amazon. The name of the product is “Walden, Optimized for Kindle.” Obviously it’s just Thoreau’s book in a downloadable format, and that’s fine. I don’t hate reading screens. It just struck me as ironic, and also interesting, on a philosophy of language level.
What does the word “Walden” refer to, here? Not the lake outside of Boston. It is as it has always been; as far as I know, no-one’s been a-optimizin’ in Concord lately. Not the text of the book: I assume that the optimizers did not actually edit out, for example, “perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring [new things], than by a true utility.” (Walden, p. 21) (admittedly, he was talking about clothes, not consumer electronics). Although I suppose eliminating cognitive dissonance would be a kind of optimization, so maybe it is edited.
And at the same time…here’s me thinking, hey, if I had a reading screen I could download Walden and have it with me ALL THE TIME. Just in case.
I have a…problem, with taking books places. I generally have at least one fiction and one nonfiction in my bag even if I’m just going to work: if I’m heading out to a coffeehouse to hang out, the number (and mass) can go up considerably. So the Kindle is appealing.
But the little discussions I have with myself, on a daily basis, the ones that I’ve had all my life: “Susannah, do you REALLY need The Abolition of Man AND Ideas Have Consequences in your bag AT THE SAME TIME?” –I feel like those discussions are… valuable. Because the reality is that I will not be able, in an hour on the E train, to finish Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance, if I am right at the beginning of it. So I don’t need to bring along that Elizabeth Moon book, just in case. And if my idea is that I might want to switch back and forth BETWEEN them, well, am I sure that’s the kind of reader I want to be? Do I want to contribute to the already-advanced fragmentation of my attention?
Those debates with myself (where my internal voice sounds disconcertingly like my mother’s) anchor me in physical and temporal reality. They instill, even if only slightly, the discipline and habit of choice, in a world that says that you never have to choose. I don’t know if I want to give that up.