This weekend I was riding the DC metro reading Vanity Fair. VF is an awkward social indicator because it's a mostly serious volume of excellent writing and reporting about politics and culture hiding under an air-brushed image of, say, Jessica Simpson, next to a lipstick red headline asking whether we may call her fat (we may not). When fetching glances from other subway riders, I'll admit I sometimes feel a tinge of defensiveness, as if I have to explain to the anonymous gawkers, "Don't judge me, I promise I'm only reading Michael Lewis!"
This is what you call culture snobbery, and as James Wolcott explains -- in Vanity Fair, no less -- it is dying a slow, digitized death. Because when all culture can be reduced to a file living in our e-reader and iPod, will we ever be able to judge strangers by the covers of their reading material again?
It's a superb column, brimming with absolutely sterling passages that make me wish I could buy a Kindle and adorn the cover with a picture of James Wolcott. Here's a choice graph:
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices. As we divest ourselves of once familiar physical objects--digitize and dematerialize--we approach a Star Trek future in which everything can be accessed from the fourth dimension with a few clicks or terse audibles. Reading will forfeit the tactile dimension where memories insinuate themselves, reminding us of where and when D. H. Lawrence entered our lives that meaningful summer. "Darling, remember when we downloaded Sons and Lovers in Napa Valley?" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. The Barnes & Noble bookstore, with its coffee bar and authors' readings, could go the way of Blockbuster as an iconic institution, depriving readers of the opportunity to mingle with their own kind and paw through magazines for free.
Wolcott is hitting his stride here rhetorically, but he's also being a bit unfair. The sentiment "Darling remember when we downloaded Sons and Lovers in Napa?" is not the right memory insinuating itself. It's a bit like saying "Darling remember when you bought Sons and Lovers on your Chase Visa and signed the receipt?" The acquisition of books -- digital or dead tree -- has nothing on the reading of books. I don't remember where I bought my favorite novels, but I could show you exactly the passages that made me want to be a writer. And with the Kindle, although you forfeit the opportunity to dog-ear pages, you can still bookmark the passages you want to remember. You can write notes with icons throughout the book, and the ink won't bleed through the other side of the page and blot out a sentence, like it does with paper.
I could go on about the Kindle's convenience, but that's really not in dispute. We're talking about the death of cultural snobbery because a private, ditigal culture means the death of highbrow signaling. But surely, we've seen this movie before. Penmanship in letters used to be a social indicator. In today's email word, Helvetica flattens that hierarchy. Snobbery has survived the transition, and so has James Wolcott.
I'd also point out that once our reading material is a matter of privacy between the reader and the material, it should allow for a nice bit of freedom from the judging gawkers on the metro, whose leering can be either a source of pride or embarrassment. Holding the New Yorker on a train, for example, is not just a quiet subway read, it's also something of a conspicuous announcement to the train. Clutching Infinite Jest on the metro is the literary equivalent of holding a megaphone next to your ear while you listen to Rachmaninoff, loudly, and animate the arpeggios with your fingers. A bit of discretion won't kill us. I wouldn't mind having that pretty, smart-looking girl across metro car know that I'm reading James Wolcott. But in the end, all I want to do is read my Vanity Fair in peace.