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Alone together with the Kindle


Simon Castles

E-books make it impossible to judge a stranger by what they are reading.

THE woman opposite me on the tram is reading. Instinctively, I look to see what she is reading. This is a public transport pastime, after all, something commuters have been doing for as long as there have been books - and public transport. But I can't see what she is reading, only that she is reading a Kindle. So I go back to my book.

I don't have anything against the Kindle per se, or any other e-reader for that matter. It was screens that took us away from reading, and maybe only screens can bring us back. But the increasing popularity of the Kindle is closing a chapter on a certain kind of people watching. For the Kindle makes it almost impossible to tell what strangers are reading. Everything is hidden from view.

In itself this may be no big thing - though I've always enjoyed reader browsing - but it does add to the sense that public transport and public spaces in general have become somehow lonelier in the digital age. That on the tram or train, in the street or mall, we are more disconnected from one another, even as we are more connected than ever before.

The reason you can't tell what Kindle users are reading, of course, is that e-books have no covers, at least not in the traditional sense.

Some will say this is good, because you should not judge a book by its cover anyway. But I've never much liked this saying. As a child I didn't want to judge Peter Benchley's Jaws by its cover, which showed a giant shark about to eat a clueless swimmer. So I read it, and it was about a giant shark that eats clueless swimmers. I didn't go near the water for three years.

But even if it is true we shouldn't judge books by their covers, what about those of us who enjoy judging people by their books? Where does the Kindle leave us?

I've caught thousands of trams and trains and made thousands of snap judgments about strangers based on what they are reading. This is hardly fair, of course - I know nothing about these people. But then strangers get to judge me on what I'm reading (a scary thought, particularly now I recall The Power of Now phase I went through), so at least it is a fair exchange, and one that helps everyone pass the time. And it can be a long time that needs passing. I'm pretty sure I saw a woman read most of War and Peace on a single ride on tram 19 along Sydney Road.

So the snap judgments are there to help smooth the ride. A young woman reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (probably a poet, possibly on Prozac, thinks Ted Hughes was a total shit). Middle-aged man reading Harry Potter (hasn't had sex in a while, slight case of BO, always a good sport at fancy dress parties). Middle-aged woman reading Fifty Shades of Grey (also hasn't had sex in a while, likes a clean home, recently bought some handcuffs). Student with a Trotsky beard reading Chomsky (vegan, wants his girlfriend to make him some clothes out of hessian sacks, will be a partner in a law firm before the decade is out). A suit reading Ayn Rand (may not be human, possibly lizard inside as in V, planning world domination).

But whatever people are reading, I tend to like them just for reading. Yes, even those reading Eat, Pray, Love. OK, not really them.

Occasionally, you glance across at a stranger on the tram and they are reading one of your favourite novels, and there is this wonderful zing, a feeling that maybe you are looking at a kindred spirit. You want to say something to them, and I have seen people do just that. But even if you don't say a word, there is a small connection there, a spark of life in an otherwise dull trip.

The Kindle snuffs out these sparks by making the act of reading private to the point of secretive.

Of course, there is much to like about the Kindle. But something is lost as well; some street life and character is surrendered.

These gadgets do throw up barriers between people. They allow us to be with one another but also to be distant, in our own little worlds. Increasingly, we are ''alone together'', in the words of psychologist and author Sherry Turkle.

But there is a paradox. For even as social spaces become less social, we are sharing more than ever before on social media. We broadcast our favourite books, music and films widely, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, Spotify, etc.

All of which makes for a peculiar situation vis-a-vis the woman with the Kindle sitting opposite me on the tram. It is quite possible there are people on the other side of the world who know what she is reading. But I don't, and I'm just a metre away.

Simon Castles is an Age producer.


  • "It's a book about Russia." (The punchline by Woody Allen from his stand-up days to the setup about War and Peace in this article that was inexplicably left hanging.)

    I honestly don't understand most of the writers in this paper any more. Why write half a stolen joke? Is this unintentional? Ironic?

    Date and time
    January 07, 2013, 12:52AM
    • So sit next to them and decode what they're reading from a squint at the text.

      Date and time
      January 07, 2013, 3:30AM
      • look for the person with the yhickest glasses, as they will have the largest print

        Date and time
        January 07, 2013, 11:13AM
      • I find myself trying to inch closer to them to see what they're reading.
        If I'm on a bus, I always pick a seat that's behind someone reading whether book or e-reader.
        Makes me feel safe...
        Knowing that people think they're safe from prying eyes.

        I don't mind people knowing what I read, even if it's just Grimm's fairytales.
        Though lately I have had to make conscious decisions on what book I read on public transport, mostly due to size.

        Date and time
        January 07, 2013, 4:18PM
    • I can't deny I love the feel and smell of a real book, but I love my kindle even more. When you go away to work on an oil rig for 4 weeks at a time (currently 10 days into my 28 days, not that I am counting), and you have a 10kg baggage weight limit to deal with for the helicopter transfers, nothing can beat a kindle. Super light with hndreds of books loaded on it, comfy to hold and to read from. I used to have to slow myself down reading so I could take my 2 or 3 books offshore, now I can read away to my hearts content. Bliss.

      But, would I have purchased a kindle if I worked a 9 - 5 job? Hmm, that is a tough one, and I am not sure what the answer would be.

      an Oil Rig, offshore W.A.
      Date and time
      January 07, 2013, 5:34AM
      • I love my kindle. Working 9to5 and squeezed into overcrowded PT, the one piece of solace is being able to read my kindle and hold on. It works in all cases. Access to cheaper books and a whole new spectrum of writers. Trust me it doesn't matter, once converted to digital there is no going back.

        I really don't care what anyone else is reading - I am able to enter my own world.

        As nick pointed out, perhaps it could be a conversation starter as well in sharing what others are reading instead of reading over ones shoulder.

        Date and time
        January 07, 2013, 11:48AM
      • what we need is some kind of indication that you're happy to chat about what you're reading on a digital device. A little sticker on the back of your device indicating that you're not a psycho cat killer?

        Date and time
        January 07, 2013, 1:10PM
      • I love my Kindle too. Especially being able to buy a book at 2 am when you can't sleep. I think readers are readers no matter what mode of device.

        Date and time
        January 07, 2013, 2:22PM
      • I have a kindle and an extensive library of books, occupying four book cases in two rooms. On the kindle, I have a heap of out of prints that I would never have found out about.
        My husband loves his kindle and takes it away with him on overseas trips. He reckons it beats carrying several books.
        I remember when I was at uni. My husband and I had decided on our Christmas holiday in New Zealand. I decided to take some of my required readings with me for the next semester. Half my case was books, and I did get to read quite a bit. How much more simpler would it have been if the kindle had been available back then?
        I think there is definitely a place for both in this world. I'm currently reading Terry Pratchett's "Dodger", a Christmas gift from my son. Oh, and it is a hardcover.

        Date and time
        January 07, 2013, 4:05PM
    • Judging aside, it does make it hard for strangers to strike up conversations about what they're reading. Which is almost enough to make an anti-social type like me rush out and buy an ebook, though I suppose it's probably cheaper to just cover my copy of Harry Potter with the dust jacket from an old accounting text.

      Date and time
      January 07, 2013, 7:10AM

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