Have you ever taken the subway and paid attention to the people around you? When it’s crowded and there’s no place to sit, it’s hard not to notice people elbowing you and squeezing you to the point of suffocating.
But really, when the car is just filled with a normal number of people and you have a chance to sit down, have you ever taken a few minutes to look up from your phone long enough to see that there are others around you?
I did that during a recent trip home to the Bronx on the 1 train. And what did I notice? Everyone had their faces buried in their phones. Everyone, that is, except for one young man who was reading a book. No, it wasn’t some Kindle special or anything like that. It was an actual book — hundreds of pages of real tree-based paper glued together with a hardbound cover.
I was fascinated by this. I couldn’t remember the last time I lugged around an actual book, but there he was, reading away.
As we closed in on his stop, the young man finished his last few words, carefully placed a bookmark between the worn pages, and tucked the newly closed book away in his satchel. I took that opportunity to say something — and mind you, I’m not exactly the most outgoing person to strangers on a train. But I was fascinated.
He smiled, caught by surprise that someone noticed. “Yeah. You can never go wrong with Dostoevsky.”
“There’s no digital version of the book? I mean, that thing looks heavy.”
He shrugged. “Probably. But I’d take the real thing any day.”
We arrived at his stop, and just like that, the young man and his book were gone. But those last words really stuck with me — “I’d take the real thing any day.”
I grew up watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” because I’m a geek, what can I say? I loved the idea of traveling in a cruise ship-like space vehicle at speeds faster than light, exploring the galaxy while being surrounded by any amenity you could ever ask for.
Stories, at least in this interpretation of the future by the late great Gene Roddenberry, could come in many forms. They could be on data pads, or the computer could read it to you, or you could even visit a holodeck and have the entire story recreated around you, almost as real as the real thing. Yet more often than not, the cameras would find Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in his ready room or in his quarters, reading a book. An actual book — hundreds of pages of real tree-based paper glued together with a hardbound cover. You know, “the real thing.”
I always found this an odd juxtaposition. It’s the future. Books, they’re from the past.
It’s like how many look at newspapers these days. Getting the news online through any device that requires a battery — that’s the future. The old paper and ink? It’s the past.
But is it? Don’t get me wrong, I get nearly all of my non-local news from the internet. That is, when I can actually read it. More often than not, I’m interrupted by some ad popping up on the screen, or some redirect to a special ad page that I have to click away from, or even worse, a video that starts blaring right in the middle of my reading. My eyes are already sore from having the glow of the screen burning into them all day, but I have to deal with all these obstacles simply to read a story?
But then I pick up a newspaper — our newspaper, or any newspaper for that matter. And I feel relieved. Even as you read these words on the physical paper in front of you, there’s no worry about some survey kicking in asking you what you’re buying for the holidays, or little story cliffhangers forcing you to click “next” over and over again.
It’s just words on paper. Created by a renewable (and recyclable) resource. With no computer screen glow, or ads getting in the way, or videos interrupting.
There are some who say the newest adults in our society are not interested in newspapers. But that’s only because our society tells them they shouldn’t be. That the future is what you can call up on your phone, hidden among the billions of web pages that make up the internet.
But sometimes you just need an escape. Where it’s just you and the words and pictures in front of you. If society tells you that’s not cool, then tell society to get lost.
Our tech might make the world easier to navigate, but remember, tech is tech. And sometimes you just need a little bit of the real thing.
The author is editor of The Riverdale Press.