“It’s small and light and sleek, and I wanted it.”

WordPress has a ‘tag surfer’ via which I can track specific tags. The two I tend to follow are ‘books’ and ‘reading’, in addition to the default tags of the authors I have tagged in pieces here, such as Paul Auster. It’s a great survey tool: what are people saying about what I write about? This has been great fun over the spring and summer, as fans of actor Robert Pattinson started reading and discussing and debating and of course tagging Don DeLillo – the novel Cosmopolis is being filmed by David Cronenberg, starring Robert Pattinson. But the survey is frustrating when people tag ‘reading’ or ‘books’ but aren’t talking about either of those things at all. Namely, when people are comparing prices and features and options and brands of e-readers.

I enjoyed Russell Smith’s piece on e-readers this week in the Globe. What I can’t believe are the comments left on the online story. Some folks are genuine in trying to help him out, explaining the  32b v. 64b. kernel issues, or debating UBS cables. Some are less helpful and even critical that someone with such limited technological capacity is writing about e-readers. My favourite: “Wow, technology articles written by people who don’t know anything about technology. Classic Globe and Mail.” Then there are a raft of comments comparing and contrasting various brands of e-reader. It is only on the third page of the comments that someone named ‘wildeyed’ calls it out: “It is astonishing to me that so many people can be such vehement defenders of e-readers and the underlying technology while evidently being incapable of understanding the simple and entertaining message of this small essay.”

I agree with Russell Smith. In a sense it’s a question of risk: the same reason we are more comfortable jaywalking than boarding an airplane. The odds of my paper book being soaked with water and therefore unusable are probably much greater than the odds of my e-reader choosing to spontaneously malfunction. But I know what will cause my paper book to breakdown: in this hypothetical case, a large quantity of water. I know what steps to take to avoid such a disaster. I can avoid an oncoming bus, and do, when I jaywalk, but there’s nothing I can do about jet engine failure.

Suppose my e-reader has a 98% success rate; that’s still a 2% higher failure rate than my book. The comments go on and on about how easy an e-reader actually is and these folks continue to miss the point. This is what I always hated about reading and writing about music: the tendency to stop talking about music and instead descend to technological cock-waving. I don’t really care about e-readers one way or the other – I don’t use one but do not begrudge those that do – but I do regret this: the commodification of the act of reading, and the resulting consumer one-upmanship.


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