Dear driver of San Francisco Cooperative bus number forty-nine,
En primer lugar, gracias. A thousand times gracias, you kind, honest, trustworthy savior of my literary lifeline, you. Thanks to you, all is right again in the world of extended solo travel. And for that, I am infinitely indebted.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not bitter that you made all passengers exit your bus and board another in Ambato as we perplexedly double-checked our direct trip tickets from Macas to Quito. And that the second bus – which we never should have boarded anyway – got a flat tire which took an hour to change, forcing me to pee on the side of the Pan-American Highway amid mutant killer mosquitoes and voyeuristic cows. But let’s leave that in the past, shall we?
For now, I want to thank you.
As you well know, my frenzied attempt to catch the next bus left behind collateral damage in the form of an abandoned eBook reader, stowed away in the back pocket of seat number four. This omission proves all too ironic in light of my valiant rescue of an orphaned suitcase in the overhead storage compartment. When I returned it to the owner, she gasped with gratitude: “¡Ay díos mio, gracias! ¡La habría olvidado!” Oh my goodness, thanks! I would have forgotten it!
Yeah, well I did.
Wednesday I left my beloved Kindle on a bus in the middle of the Ecuadorian Oriente. Wednesday I kissed my entire current book collection goodbye with one simple slip-up.
“Oh Jesus, I left something in the other bus, wait for me while I go get it!” I pleaded with the second bus driver. “Ya se fue,” he muttered, pointing a dull finger at your bright orange bus turning a brave new corner. A stupid new digital library on wheels.
I watched as you disappeared down the curved freeway, your vehicle void of passengers except my feeloading David Graeber, Lidia Yukanavitch, James Scott, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Jessica Valenti, David Foster Wallace, Guy Debord, Neil Gaiman, Stieg Larsson, Dorothy Allison, among others, all for certain wondering how they found themselves on the bus together and why I left them to tolerate each others’ disparate styles and subjects.
I immediately burst into tears.
Sir, I must thank you for not questioning the value or importance of my forgotten article when I finally reached you on the phone. I did not have such luck with the other passengers, who demanded an explanation for my silent crying.
“What? What did you leave, mija?” they pressed, expecting I had abandoned my only child, forgotten a 14K engagement ring or a kidney packed in ice to be delivered to my beloved dying brother – who, although not dying, is in fact missing a kidney. Perhaps I should have gone with that, because the truth failed to impress.
“Mi libro electrónico,” I told them – my electronic book. It sounded even stupider in Spanish than I expected. My exasperation fell on deaf ears and blank stares. As far as I can tell, the Kindle has yet to make a grand commercial entrance in Ecuador. Though neither, perhaps, has a widespread leisure reading culture.
Granted, there are worse things a traveler can leave behind in a bus heading god knows where in the Amazon. Passports, insulin, Alzheimer-plagued grandmothers and all of one’s clean underwear immediately come to mind.
But losing my Kindle was for me a worst-case scenario. You see, good sir, these days I make a living of my aloneness. I am two countries into a five-country year-long feast of self-reliance. My transience dictates difficult hellos and even harder good-byes and long social pauses in between. I need unforgettable fiction to cushion the sharp edges of my solitude, or fill the space with all-consuming questions. My Kindle has become my pride and joy, my lifeblood, my only friend in the initial weeks of fieldwork when I have none. Book titles punctuate my memories, literally book-ending episodes and framing my experiences of place. When I don’t have companions, I read. When I have companions, I read. I. Read.
Oh and did I mention, the day before I left my Kindle on your bus my brother Jason and his wife Rebecca gave me seven ebooks – really the only thing on my wish-list these days – as an early Christmas gift? How was I ever going to recuperate those? Eff eff eff eff eff Merry Christmas.
Amazon recommends de-authorizing lost Kindles so that they cannot be used by thieves, particularly for future purchases. (Ah yes, I forgot to tell you – my Kindle is linked with my debit card so that one can seamlessly purchase and beam new titles to my device with a single click). They can also ensure a stolen or misplaced Kindle is not registered for another account. Sure, thanks to the cloud where all my ebooks are stored, I could still read them on my iPhone or my desktop. But that’s not way to enjoy a novel. I wouldn’t dare whip out my MacBook Air on a bus to plow through Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Besides, my battery would run out before I reached page 300. Basically, my Kindle was my primary reading device, the only way I know to make nine-hour bus-rides, extended layovers, and insomnia moderately tolerable. And I didn’t expect to be able to replace it in anywhere in your lovely country.
Oh, and I would estimate my Kindle as it is currently stocked to be valued around $600. So there’s also that.
So after the tears came rapid-fire fantasizing: I’ll email Amazon. I’ll plead with them. I’ll tell them my sad sad story. I’ll make a witty joke about living in the Amazon (har har). I’ll give them permanent free ad space on my blog. I’ll tattoo Kindle on my bicep and swear off sleeved shirts for life. Rachael, proselytizer for the digital reading experience! Surely they’ll sympathize, being the large, powerful, profit-mongering company that they are. Surely they’ll ship me a new device for free, pre-loaded with all of the titles I purchased. Yes, I delude myself in to thinking, that will certainly work.
Imagine if I’d left just one book on your bus. Just one. Say, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Having lent the book to an ex-lover, perhaps I’d mourn the loss of the delicately double-underlined words and giant coffee-stain continents mapping our favorite passages. Perhaps I’d fantasize about who discovered the forgotten book, where it ended up, ponder who read it next, or wonder if it simply became toilet paper for a stingy backpacker.
There is beauty in that imagined circulation. No de-authorization required.
In fact, I would freely authorize its adoption, this one-title casualty. Just thinking about it imbues me with the superiority print-book readers must feel when, unlike their digital counterparts, they do not have to turn off their devices at take-off and landing.
But losing a Kindle – the vessel of one’s entire library – inflicts a very real trauma that dwarfs the experience of losing a single print book. I guess my misplaced Kindle serves as a kind of unintentional case study in many things I’ve been pondering lately: things having to do with ephemera, digitality, fragility and the i- and e-ness of so many aspects of my everyday life.
We are becoming people of the cloud, people whose memories and musings find e-permanence in networks we cannot see but must trust are stable. We own everything and nothing, our binary lives made real by remote services and access to databases. Someone else is now the gatekeeper to our lives. Case in point: in the moment I lost my kindle, Amazon had the key to my library, the ultimate power to authorize or de-authorize devices from reading books I only thought I “owned”.
This is not the first time I’ve deeply considered the Kindle. Once upon a time in a wonderful anthropology class called “Cultures of Capitalism” at Rice University, a professor assigned us students a commodity tracking project. We were to trace the life of any good through the analytical lens of our choosing. The aim of the project was to “examine commodities not as straightforward ‘objects,’ but as temporary and often unstable ‘gatherings,’ (Foster 2008) or constellations of qualities produced through interactions between people and things.”
I chose to conduct an analysis of ebooks through the framework of actor network theory. “My project examines how actors negotiate the value of ebooks,” I told my classmates. What I really wanted to know was: “How does the (im)materiality of reading inform the use and exchange value of ebooks?” My analysis mapped critical discussions -and the actors that constituted them – around an ebook’s worth: the price wars between Amazon and publishers in 2010, “voicy” consumer-insurgents that argued for lower electronic book prices, and discourses around the demise of print publishing. I compared the commodity chains of pbooks versus ebooks, the comparative physical reading experience, as well as the costs of production – all while interweaving the theory of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon.
It was, if I do say so myself, a pretty killer presentation.
The project was born out of several forces, most prominently my own ambivalence in the matter of eReaders. As a nomad, the portability of the eReader seduced me. As a Luddite, I craved the tactile experience of a physical book. The smell of the pages, the annotations scribbled haplessly in margins, half-priced book exchanges, dog-tagged pages and thick earthy weight of knowledge all collectively constituted my idea of the reading experience.
Trust me, I was the last person I expected to go digital. But you can’t stare at an itinerary of five countries alongside a luggage limit of 50 pounds and not give into convenience. So slowly my literary transactions evaporated into clicks. When my best friend landed a job at Houston’s best independent bookstore, I visited her full of nostalgia and shame. I was a traitor of paper; an adulteress of the analog. I ran my lusty fingers down the sturdy spines of my once-faithful friends, ever-aware of the Kindle present in my oversized purse. I wanted to go back to the bookshelf, but opportunity cost called.
“I can’t,” I’d say. “I just can’t.”
Michel Callon et al discuss how the singularity of a good is always relational. They say that selected characteristics can be used to describe other goods, with which relations of similitude or proximity are likely to be established. Defining a good means positioning it in a space of goods in a system of difference and similarities, of distinct yet connected categories.” So when Amazon sought out to define the Kindle, they made it like a book but different: it’s design was to give off an “aura of bookishness,” making it less of a whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture. The name “kindle” is supposed to evoke the “crackling ignition of knowledge.” Its e-ink mimes the clarity of paper.
It’s a book. It isn’t. Maybe that’s why we can’t quite agree on its value.
I kept this similar difference in mind when analyzing the Kindle in my project.But only this week did I realize a severe omission in my analysis: Loss. I hadn’t thought of this project in years until I watched you pull away with my Kindle in tow. Stupid stupid stupid stupid, I thought to myself, you forgot your Kindle AND you forgot to analyze what it could mean to forget a Kindle!?
How did you get an A on that project, anyways?
Sure, one loses many things in the switch from p- to e-books: literary voyeurism (judging neighbors on the subway based on their book covers), lending books to friends, and exchanging them for others (the books, not the friends). And when it comes to misplacing an eReader, one inherits the anxiety of losing an entire library and the bureaucratic procedure that prevents others from accessing it using your device.
So perhaps to my original project findings,
- eBook market is a site of intense social and economic contestation
- The im(materiality) of reading challenges consumers’ conception of the use- and exchange-value of ebooks
- Negotiations are couched in terms of ebook’s foil, the pbook; causing confusion about what exactly is being sold
- eBook distributors caught between “voicy” consumers, “voicy publishers,” potential for piracy, and digital opportunity costs
I would add that:
- Purchasing ebooks renders reading a more privatized and securitized venture, and
- Losing your Kindle while travelling the world for a year sucks.
Despite these trade-offs, I am going to stand by my Kindle. As a traveller, I don’t know of any other way I could access so many fantastic books titles instantaneously and without extra suitcase space. I’m incredibly happy to have my device back in my possession, stocked with all the books I plan to read over the following months.
Sure, a Kindle may imitate a book, but it’s nothing like losing one. So thanks again for returning my Kindle to me and for making me think through all this in the meantime. Gracias, pana.
I’m off to e-read myself to sleep.