Headmaster’s Thoughts – October 2010

I have discovered that no matter what electronic reading device you buy, as soon as you mention which one you bought, someone will tell you why you purchased the wrong one. About two months ago I bought a Nook from Barnes & Noble. I have spent enough money there that I think it should be Barnes & Noble & Stewart, but I digress. I purchased a Nook because I was leaving the next day on a trip and did not want to “schlep” (if you are a New Yorker and need a translation, then you are not the New Yorker you think you are) a whole load of books. So I bought the little reading machine, downloaded about five books and off I went.


Within hours, I was told that I would have been smarter to have acquired a Kindle, or perhaps even an iPad. The problem with the Kindle was that Amazon (another firm that could be called Amazon and Stewart) has to send it to you, and this Nook was rather in the way of an impulse purchase. My impulse occurred in the store at 66th and Columbus which is more conducive to impulses than having to order online. The iPad is something that Jayme subsequently bought and loves, but it does too many things for me. I like one piece of equipment to do one job. I understand that more. For me a toaster should just toast and a microwave oven should microwave, but I digress again.


It is true that there is no backlighting to the Nook (or the Kindle for that matter) but you can buy a very cheap little light that clips on to the top of the device and read in the dark quite comfortably. I say this because Jayme is very proud of her backlit iPad and I am equally proud that my machine cost a quarter of the price. But I am digressing yet again.


The Nook, I have discovered, does not work for me with very long books. I wrote last year (in these “Thoughts”) about my summer’s experience reading War and Peace. There is little I remember of the summer of 2009 except reading War and Peace. I was probably too proud of doing it (Jayme says that I was obsessive about it). It is lengthy (the English like understatements) and I cannot imagine reading it on my little machine.


First of all, it would be very difficult to refer back and forth to the list of characters, the historical notes, and the translator’s notes–things that I don’t know how you read War and Peace without. But I also have found that I have difficulty staying with the Nook for really long and “heavy” works of literature. Great for “Spenser” detective novels, not really workable for Crime and Punishment.


Since I read a lot of the former, the Nook works well for me, and I have been on several trips without a physical book in my hand. In fact, I have found that one overloads the Nook with e-books. In my two months, I think I have about thirty books downloaded. Of course, I have not read all of them, but once I find an author I like, I find it difficult not to download all of that author’s books I haven’t read yet. It also encourages me to troll all the book reviews for new authors.


Somehow you don’t feel such an obligation to finish the book if it is on your machine. Barnes & Noble are very clever about this. They only charge you about ten dollars a book. Obviously, it costs them virtually nothing in printing and distribution costs. Nonetheless, the idea of getting a $25 book for ten bucks appeals to my stingy side, and they certainly make it very convenient to impulse shop for books in your own home.


To make it all the more seductive, they know what you want to read and do not hesitate to tell you. When I was very young (well, fairly young), our family would go to diners where there was a little jukebox selection machine next to your table, and you could pay for the song it would play. And I thought (and here is why I stress the “young” component of this paragraph) that they had a little man in the basement who would interpret how you pressed the buttons and put on the record that you wanted.


Well, I was wrong about that, but I am not sure that they do not have a little man in Amazon or Barnes & Noble who isn’t checking what I read and thinking, “Well, he’ll like this,” because they frequently suggest what I would like to read with considerable accuracy. I have been told it has to do with algorithms, which is all very well for those of you who know what an algorithm is. Most of us wouldn’t know what an algorithm was if we tripped over one.


So, to all of you who have one of these electronic readers and want to tell me that I bought the wrong one, let me say that I am sure you are right, but does it really matter? To those of you who are upset at the weight and expense of textbooks for our students, let me agree in hoping that some publisher will soon start putting textbooks online for these machines. And finally, to anyone who is brave enough to read War and Peace on a Nook or something similar, I send you my admiration.


For the rest of us who love escapist reading, who started with Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe and now read about Gabriel Allon and Stephanie Plum, these little lightweight gadgets are, in my opinion, very handy. Both spouses can read the same book at the same time in poor light conditions. Impressive! Perhaps marriages are being held together by the Nooks and Kindles and iPads of this world. But I digress again.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org



“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section More News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.