Let’s start with two confessions. First, despite the fact that she is probably my wife’s favorite author, I had, until recently, never read Jane Austen. Sure, I’ve seen enough PBS to know the drill: smart woman with cash-poor family survives a series of officious relatives, failures to communicate, and her own charming foibles to find a happy ending with Colin Firth or Alan Rickman, or whatever English actor is on the way up. But that doesn’t quite count, I’d never read Jane herself. Her name has sat atop my list of literary shame for several years.
Second confession: I help people use electronic devices to download books every day. If cornered, I’ll even feign cheer as I tell a patron that the library is committed to providing all of their digital pleasures (even if we often pay extortionate amounts for the privilege.) My own attempts at digital reading, however, have been rather pathetic. My friends wipe tragic hands across foreheads and proclaim the cruel difficulties of a past where they carried books on vacation, supported the weight of large volumes with languid limbs, or had to wait hours, perhaps even a whole day, to download the next volume in The Song of Ice and Fire. I nod sympathetically over the top of my paperback, secretly trying to understand why one would possibly want to exchange the wonderful and durable technology of the paper book. My first few attempts at reading on the screen ended in aborted failures. I either lost track of the story or the book magically returned to the ether as my checkout period ended somewhere in chapter two.
Last Christmas, a smart phone with a screen big enough to hold a couple of paragraphs arrived under the tree. It was with me all the time, even a few times when I was caught lacking for a book: bored in a doctor’s office, sitting in an airport terminal, lying in bed with insomnia, but unwilling to turn on the lamp for fear of waking said wife. A 21-day checkout wasn’t going to do it, and I’m a cheapskate when it comes to books, but wandering through Project Gutenberg one day, the lightning bolt hit: I would read Jane, albeit very slowly, and I would read her digitally.
Four months later, I’m convinced that it’s called digital reading because of all the tiny swipes my digits have made across the face of the phone. It’s more than a little ironic to relish the pleasures of the letters exchanged while waiting for news of Lydia’s disastrous elopement, the miscommunications between Elizabeth and Darcy, Bingley and Jane; all the while reading from a device that would have wiped out said letters, corrected each miscommunication with a well-timed text message. Would Lizzy have escaped all those tedious card games and recitals by feigning attention to an incoming message? Would Mr. Collins have clued in when Elizabeth refused his Friend request? Would Darcy have dropped Wickham from the friends and family plan, or kept him on out of duty to his departed father? And what kind of delicious plot twists would Austen have created from auto-corrected messages?
Despite the historical incongruity, I can report that Austen survives even the most protracted reading. I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! With a phone of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.
Now it’s on to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, (and no the ironies of that title aren’t lost on me). I still prefer to read off paper, but there’s room for a few digital classics in my repertoire. Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.