Thursday, May 12, 2011

To e-Book or not to e-book

I had four plane flights in forty-eight hours last week. To make good use of the time in transit I decided to plan a story based on one of Jane Austen’s heroines or villain. So I took my tattered copy of Pride and Prejudice along to while away the in-between hours and to get into the right linguistic state of mind.

As I sat on the metal seats which are ubiquitous in boarding queues, I felt a need to be furtive when I took my yellowing paperback out of my bag. Alongside me people flashed laptops, i-Phones and even bright and shiny Kindles. I couldn’t help feeling a little envious as I glanced at the man reading on his e-reader. So I hid my book under cover of my laptop which I’d opened in an attempt to show that I, too, am a thoroughly adapted 21st century person.

Of course that started me thinking about books and whether they’re going to be extinct in a few years from now. Will my children laugh at me for giving them a book for Christmas? If I gave them an electronic book, would that automatically make it better?

Then there’s another development I noticed in a recent lecture to students. I’d asked them to write down their ideas for a film script they had to write during my course. The older members of the group produced pages of hand-scribbled notes within minutes. The younger ones, those who were in their early twenties, stared at me blankly for hours. No amount of coaxing could get them to scratch more than just a few words on their almost blank sheets of paper. I was anxious, thinking that this batch of students wasn’t going to produce the script required in their allotted time. So I decided to fast-forward the process and asked them to begin typing up their work – or lack of it - in the facility’s computer room. What a transformation!

As soon as the young students were seated in front of the beautiful Apple Macs they morphed into writers. Words flowed from their fingers and they caught up to the others with just a few swirls over their keyboards. That’s when I realised it: the younger generation think more clearly with a screen in front of them. Whether it’s a cell phone, an i-Pad or a laptop, their brains switch into gear as soon as they are placed in front of an electronic device.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? If the majority of reading and writing today takes place on a screen does it matter? I don’t think it does. Unless we run out of power on an international scale and all electronic devices become obsolete, of course. But until then, at least the youth are literate. In fact, some educationists say that even though some youngsters may use cell phone abbreviations when they write or text, they are much more at ease expressing themselves through the use of words than their parents’ generations were.

But why did I feel ashamed of my ancient book in the airport? Yes, it was a novel by an author who’s been dead for two centuries. And yes, it is a very tattered and yellowing book that it could merit a tag attached to it, explaining its origins like an artefact from the past. The thing is, I felt so much more comfortable reading my tired old paperback than I would’ve done reading an e-book on my laptop.

Books are a source of comfort and peace to me. My earliest memories of reading are of my mother trying to potty train me and my brother. She would give us a page of a comic book and tell us to sit on our potties until we’d finished “reading” it. Engrossed by the illegible words and bright colours, we’d stay seated until the deed was done. Those were rare moments of quietness in our busy toddler lives, even if there was an ulterior motive. We graduated to real books without any motive soon afterwards.

My mother would read to us at first and I devoured my way through my own choices as years went on. Books have always been a part of my life. I love their physicality and I’m not happy unless I have at least three stacked on my bedside table.

So although my old book may have looked out of place in the airport, I thank my mother for instilling a love of books in me. And I hope I can instil the same love of words in my children. Even they prefer to take their books electronically.

The Lesser Spotted Travelling Human

So there I was sitting at yet another airport on another weekend afternoon. It must be the most unpleasant place to be on a hot, long weekend. Perhaps this explains the bad mood of the passengers waiting for flights out of O.R. Tambo.

It’s the third time my flight has been delayed. I’m not going to mention the name of the airline responsible but it rhymes with Makula. The last flights of the day are backed up and hundreds of tired passengers are irritable as we wait in the endless boarding queue. We just know that the minute we leave the queue to get a coffee, the airline will open the boarding gates and take off without us.

So as we wait, ready to knee each other in the groin if anyone takes our place, I can’t help noticing how strange human beings are. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that I’ve just been in the bush for four days observing the behaviour of wild animals.

For example, there’s the lesser spotted red-breasted Mr Price Mannikin, his unmistakable Mr P. logo blazing across his R59.99 T-shirt. On his legs are his R69.99 Mr P. shorts with slight cargo detail to indicate individuality and his feet are encased in R49.99 slip-on shoes. Like other Mr P. Mannikin’s, these creatures aim to blend in, determined not to attract attention by idiosyncratic behaviour. Their general demeanour is one of benign friendliness, especially if a fellow Mr P. Mannikin is nearby. A sign of status in the male is a forward projecting hump, known more commonly as the “Boep.” These boeps take years to cultivate and show that the Mannikin has access to favourable grazing conditions. The boep serves as a means of recognition between males and creates an instant bonding process in which long discussions about other male bonding rituals, such as “rugby” ensue. These are the least aggressive males in the queue. Unless someone threatens their female.

Also spotted is the highly adapted Upwardly Mobile Yupster. The female of the species is usually more flamboyant, with nine-inch stilettos being their most recognisable characteristic. The gait of the female Yupsters is slightly compromised as they are forced to totter rather than walk, and their hips have developed an ungainly swagger as a result. Swirly skirts which accent the swagger are highly favoured, as are exceptionally processed hair-dos. Males of the species will not be seen dead without designer suits. The male’s hair is also highly processed and covered in what has been identified as “Product”. The males and females have two things in common: designer labels and their state of the art mobile phones permanently attached to their ear lobes. These phones are the most visible sign of rank and status is determined by the size (where smaller is better, surprisingly) and cost of these accessories. Unfortunately, these accessories result in an overt squawking into the attachment at all times. Another common characteristic is that the Yupsters automatically assume higher status over anyone else around them. A favourite cry is their “Do You Know Who I Am?”

More prolific of late are the Tightly Packaged Hipsters. These creatures are also known for great attention to detail regarding their appearance. In contrast to the Yupsters, however, these details are not designed to show off wealth but rather their idea of being anti-establishment and “cool”. Males of the species are more highly decorated, with large tattoos on exposed arms and necks. Hair is also important and males have either tightly coiffed short hair or very well prepared longer hair where fringes over one eye are preferred. Black hair is de rigeur as is black eye-liner for both the male and female of the species. A new development is that some Tightly Packaged Hipsters are favouring the well-muscled look. This is an adaptation from the less successful Emo Hipsters who tended to fade and decline due to lack of interest. Most of the muscled variety, however, flourish and plumage is chosen to show off tightly sculpted pecs and abs. Females are still less muscled than the males but exhibit more signs of body adornment in the form of face piercings. These animals are not dangerous to others but are possible dangerous to themselves. Their addiction to piercing and tattooing can be hazardous to their health.
We are called to board our flight at last. Such a pity as I’d only just started identifying the Manic Mom variety of the species. Never mind. I’ll give David Attenborough a call when I’m home. The airport would definitely be unchartered territory for him.