The other day I made a rare visit to my office. Talking with my secretary, I was alerted by a noise behind me. I was surrounded, by friends and colleagues, who then marked my extended but irrevocable departure with a sorry-you’re-leaving card and a Kindle. I was much moved by both and failed with the expected few words.
As someone whose book collection covers the floors as well as the walls, not to mention as a prospective book publisher, I have been deeply suspicious of the Kindle. I like the feel and smell of books. I like the way that, like dogs, they take on the characteristics of their owners. Books in the houses of smokers smell of cigarettes and those owned by cat-lovers smell of cat piss. Other more wholesome odours have their place too.
When books come from Amazon – since the dog believes that the integrity of our home is eternally threatened by postmen and that the price of liberty is half the wood in the door and his front teeth – they carry deep canine indentations, and are as a result unique and possibly valuable.
I was talking to my senior daughter, a cat-owner by the way, who feels the same way. On birthdays and at Christmas she sometimes presents me with wonderful publications that have avoided Kindling and always will. For the last birthday it was a eulogy for the Soviet Arctic by a rhapsodic American fellow traveller of the 1930s; for Christmas an account of Englishmen in the Wild West.
What font is your Kindle, she asked.
I temporised. I think you can choose, I said. I haven’t worked it out yet.
She made the sound usually rendered as ‘harrumph’.
I remember the snobbery of owning vinyl albums that would never be reissued as CDs. I had one in particular by Marzette Watts, on the ESP label. I always regarded it as my most satisfactorily obscure record; rightly – it is not available as a CD; the Alyer, Ornette ESPs, yes, but not this session from Marzette Watts. On the other hand, I never really liked it and I couldn’t now find the LP under the piles of CDs, not to mention books. But my Kindle has changed my life.
It’s partly the surprises. I didn’t realise that you can subscribe for magazines on Kindle. On a Wednesday night you might be ploughing dutifully through something out of copyright and free from the Nineteenth Century, and, suddenly, there’s the Spectator.
Of course it’s the immediacy. You often wonder once the parcel from Amazon has taken its Super Saver week or so to arrive why on earth you wanted it in the first place.
But most of all, like books, it’s rather nice to handle, and unlike books it has that very satisfactory little click as you turn the page.
Or, I suppose, ‘turn’ the ‘page’.
So I am reading more than I used to. On the other hand I am getting much less music.
Much of the music that I have requires stealth to be played at home. There are certain musicians that the better half is implacable about. She hates Bob Dylan, for example, and the Incredible String Band with passion. She has her favourites: Tom Waits, Henry Purcell, the Beatles, Gerry Mulligan. There is some scope for pretending, but it’s limited. Dylan for Waits often works. But it’s unpredictable. Unexpectedly she likes Morton Feldman. Then again, I will put on something that she has expressed moderate enthusiasm for and part way into the second track, she will say, What is this noise, and why are we listening to it?
So the iPod comes in very handy. I can listen to The Incredible String Band whenever I want to. I may not want to very often, but, as Mrs Thatcher would often remark to me, whiling away a free minute, it is important in a liberal democracy that you have the right to listen to The Incredible String Band whenever you want, so long as you pay for it.
The zenith of Mrs Thatcher’s career, of course, predated the iPod. I think that she was envisaging a commercially sponsored reunion and a hired church hall.
When, before my sorry-you’re-leaving card, I walked to and from work there was an hour of iPod-available time every day. Now that’s gone. I could play the iPod at home, but it seems a bit nerdy, it confuses the dog, and, besides, I would have to be shaken when needed for a household task.
This morning an Australian commented (under an article about Gilbert & George) on the Guardian website:
I am now a University, Art School teacher, trying to transform the conceptual life of a new generation.
This breathtakingly pompous announcement resonates (as he would no doubt put it) on a number of levels. One is that one’s conceptual life is shaped more by extraneous factors like the availability of Kindle and the relative non-availability of the iPod than by University, Art School teachers. The medium is the message, as we used to muse, when we were small.
And then there’s Twitter.