One of the arguments against e-readers is that you can’ t see wha t other people are reading anymore. It used to be that you’d spot an interesting-looking person on the train, or at a cafe, or wherever, and take a minute to check out the cover of their book of choice. Now, all you see are people with ever-thinner slabs of plastic, their faces illuminated by LCD screens like the bluish-white water of a hotel swimming pool at night. A light of loneliness.
We are losing something, and we will never get it back: impromptu conversations with strangers. Last May, on a trans-Atlantic flight from Paris to New York, I saw that the elderly gentleman beside me was reading Nemesis, Philip Roth’s latest novel about the polio epidemic of the mid-1940s. I could see he was nearing the end, so I asked him to share his thoughts with me once he’d finished. I was as eager to know his thoughts about the book as I was to hear about his own experience living through the period it portrays.
An hour or so later, he tapped my arm, and thus began a four-hour conversation about the novel, which we agreed was both great and deeply flawed, life in New York, his work as a composer of music for Broadway plays, and many, many other topics. We kept each other company and turned what might have been just another long, uncomfortable flight into a civilized afternoon 30,000 feet aloft.
Another time some months b ack, aboard a horribly crowded subway car, pressed between a metal pole and a gaggle of pre-teens, a man in his mid-50s commented that we were reading books by the same author. Once again, an experience worthy of Dante’s Inferno was momentarily suspended with talk of literature.
What does it say that in both of these cases, my serendipitous new friend was a man born well before the personal computer became a household appliance, each more likely to own a record player than an iPod?
Will I ever have an excuse to talk to anyone my own age?