Following a nasty break-up, lovelorn college English instructor Wesley Smith can’t seem to get his ex-girlfriend’s parting shot out of his head: “Why can’t you just read off the computer like the rest of us?” Egged on by her question and piqued by a student’s suggestion, Wesley places an order for Amazon.com’s Kindle eReader. The [pink?] device that arrives in a box stamped with the smile logo — via one-day delivery that he hadn’t requested — unlocks a literary world that even the most avid of book lovers could never imagine.
I — Experimenting with New Technology
When Wesley Smith’s colleagues asked him—some with an eyebrow hoicked satirically—what he was doing with that gadget (they all called it a gadget), he told them he was experimenting with new technology, but that was not true.
He bought the gadget, which was called a Kindle, out of spite.
I wonder if the market analysts at Amazon even have that one on their product-survey radar, he thought. He guessed not. This gave him some satisfaction, but not as much as he hoped to derive from Ellen Silverman’s surprise when she saw him with his new purchase. That hadn’t happened yet, but it would. It was a small campus, after all, and he’d only been in possession of his new toy (he called it his new toy, at least to begin with) for a week.
Wesley was an instructor in the English Department at Moore College, in Moore, Kentucky. Like all instructors of English, he thought he had a novel in him somewhere and would write it someday. Moore College was the sort of institution that people call “a good school.” Wesley’s friend in the English Department (his only friend in the English Department) once explained what that meant. His friend’s name was Don Allman, and when he introduced himself, he liked to say, “One of the Allman Brothers. I play a mean tuba.” (He did not actually play anything.)
“A good school,” he said, “is one nobody has ever heard of outside a thirty-mile radius. People call it a good school because nobody knows it’s a bad school, and most people are optimists, although they may claim they are not. People who call themselves realists are often the biggest optimists of all.”
“Does that make you a realist?” Wesley once asked him.
“I think the world is mostly populated by shitheads,” Don Allman responded. “You figure it out.”
Moore wasn’t a good school, but neither was it a bad school. On the great scale of academic excellence, its place resided just a little south of mediocre. Most of its three thousand students paid their bills and many of them got jobs after graduating, although few went on to obtain (or even try for) graduate degrees. There was a fair amount of drinking, and of course there were parties, but on the great scale of party-schools, Moore’s place resided a little to the north of mediocre. It had produced politicians, but all of the small-water variety, even when it came to graft and chicanery. In 1978, one Moore graduate was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but he dropped dead of a heart attack after serving only four months. His replacement was a graduate of Baylor.
The school’s only marks of exceptionality had to do with its Division Three football team and its Division Three women’s basketball team. The football team (the Moore Meerkats) was one of the worst in America, having won only seven games in the last ten years. There was constant talk of disbanding it. The current coach was a drug addict who liked to tell people that he had seen The Wrestler twelve times and never failed to cry when Mickey Rourke told his estranged daughter that he was just a broken-down piece of meat.
The women’s basketball team, however, was exceptional in a good way, especially considering that most of the players were no more than five-feet-seven and were preparing for jobs as marketing managers, wholesale buyers, or (if they were lucky) personal assistants to Men of Power. The Lady Meerkats had won eight conference titles in the last ten years. The coach was Wesley’s ex-girlfriend, ex as of one month previous. Ellen Silverman was the source of the spite that had moved Wesley to buy a Kindle from Amazon, Inc., the company that sold them. Well…Ellen and the Henderson kid in Wesley’s Introduction to Modern American Fiction class.
* * *
Don Allman also claimed the Moore faculty was mediocre. Not terrible, like the football team—that, at least, would have been interesting—but definitely mediocre.
“What about us?” Wesley asked. They were in the office they shared. If a student came in for a conference, the instructor who had not been sought would leave. For most of the fall and spring semesters this was not an issue, as students never came in for conferences until just before finals. Even then, only the veteran grade-grubbers, the ones who’d been doing it since elementary school, turned up. Don Allman said he sometimes fantasized about a juicy coed wearing a tee-shirt that said I WILL SCREW YOU FOR AN A, but this never happened.
“What about us? What about us? Look at us, bro.”
“I’m going to write a novel,” Wesley replied, although even saying it depressed him. Almost everything depressed him since Ellen had walked out. When he wasn’t depressed, he felt spiteful.
“Yes! And President Obama is going to tab me as the new Poet Laureate!” Don Allman exclaimed. Then he pointed at something on Wesley’s cluttered desk. The Kindle was currently sitting on American Dreams, the textbook Wesley used in his Intro to American Lit class. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Fine,” Wesley said.
“Will it ever replace the book?”
“Never,” Wesley said. But he had already begun to wonder.
“I thought they only came in white,” Don Allman said.
Wesley looked at Don as haughtily as he himself had been looked at in the department meeting where his Kindle had made its public debut. “Nothing only comes in white,” he said. “This is America.”
Don Allman considered this, then said: “I heard you and Ellen broke up.”
* * *
Ellen had been his other friend, and one with benefits, until four weeks ago. She wasn’t in the English Department, of course, but the thought of going to bed with anyone in the English Department, even Suzanne Montanari, who was vaguely presentable, made him shudder. Ellen was five-two (eyes of blue!), slim, with a mop of short, curly black hair that made her look distinctly elfin. She had a dynamite figure and kissed like a dervish. (Wesley had never kissed a dervish, but he could imagine.) Nor did her energy flag when they were in bed.
Once, winded, he lay back and said, “I’ll never equal you as a lover.”
“If you keep talking snooty like that, you won’t be my lover for long. You’re okay, Wes.”
But he guessed he wasn’t. He guessed he was just sort of…mediocre.
It wasn’t his less-than-athletic sexual ability that ended their relationship, however. It wasn’t the fact that Ellen was a vegan with tofu hotdogs in her fridge. It wasn’t the fact that she would sometimes lie in bed after lovemaking, talking about pick-and-rolls, give-and-gos, and the inability of Shawna Deeson to learn something Ellen called “the old garden gate.” In fact, these monologues sometimes put Wesley into his deepest, sweetest, and most refreshing sleeps. He thought it was the monotony of her voice, so different from the shrieks (often profane) of encouragement she let out while they were making love, shrieks that were similar to the ones she uttered during games, running up and down the sidelines like a hare (or a squirrel going up a tree), exhorting her girls to “Pass the ball!” and “Go to the hole!” and “Drive the paint!” Sometimes in bed she was reduced to yelling “Harder, harder, harder!” As, in the closing minutes of a game, she was often able to exhort no more than “Bucket-bucket-bucket!”
They were in some ways perfectly matched, at least for the short term; she was fiery iron, straight from t
he forge, and he—in his apartment filled with books—was the water in which she cooled herself.
The books were the problem. That, and the fact that he had called her an illiterate bitch. He had never called a woman such a thing in his life before, but she had surprised an anger out of him that he had never suspected. He might be a mediocre instructor, as Don Allman had suggested, and the novel he had in him might remain in him (like a wisdom tooth that never comes up, at least avoiding the possibility of rot, infection, and an expensive—not to mention painful—dental process), but he loved books. Books were his Achilles heel.
She had come in fuming, which was not new, but also fundamentally upset—a state he failed to recognize because he had never seen her in it before. Also, he was re-reading James Dickey’s Deliverance, reveling again in how well Dickey had harnessed his poetic sensibility, at least that once, to narrative, and he had just gotten to the closing passages, where the unfortunate canoeists are trying to cover up both what they have done and what has been done to them. He had no idea that Ellen had just been forced to boot Shawna Deeson off the team, or that the two of them had had a screaming fight in the gym in front of the whole team—plus the boys’ basketball team, which was waiting their turn to practice their mediocre moves—or that Shawna Deeson had then gone outside and heaved a large rock at the windshield of Ellen’s Volvo, an act for which she would surely be suspended. He had no idea that Ellen was now blaming herself, bitterly blaming herself, because “she was supposed to be the adult.”
He heard that part—“I’m supposed to be the adult”—and said Uh-huh for the fifth or sixth time, which was one time too many for Ellen Silverman, whose fiery temper hadn’t exhausted itself for the day after all. She plucked Deliverance from Wesley’s hands, threw it across the room, and said the words that would haunt him for the next lonely month:
“Why can’t you just read off the computer, like the rest of us?”
“She really said that?” Don Allman asked, a remark that woke Wesley from a trancelike state. He realized he had just told the whole story to his office-mate. He hadn’t meant to, but he had. And there was no going back now.
“She did. And I said, ‘That was a first edition I got from my father, you illiterate bitch.’”
Don Allman was speechless. He could only stare.
“She walked out,” Wesley said miserably. “I haven’t seen or spoken to her since.”
“Haven’t even called to say you’re sorry?”
Wesley had tried to do this, and had gotten only her answering machine. He had thought of going over to the house she rented from the college, but thought she might put a fork in his face…or some other part of his anatomy. Also, he didn’t consider what had happened to be entirely his fault. She hadn’t even given him a chance. Plus…she was illiterate, or close to it. Had told him once in bed that the only book she’d read for pleasure since coming to Moore was Reach for the Summit: The Definite Dozen System for Succeeding at Whatever You Do, by Tennessee Vols coach Pat Summit. She watched TV (mostly sports), and when she wanted to dig deeper into some news story, she went to The Drudge Report. She certainly wasn’t computer illiterate. She praised the Moore College wireless network (which was superlative rather than mediocre), and never went anywhere without her laptop slung over her shoulder. On the front was a picture of Tamika Catchings with blood running down her face from a split eyebrow and the legend I PLAY LIKE A GIRL.
Don Allman sat in silence for a few moments, tapping his fingers on his narrow chest. Outside their window, November leaves rattled across Moore Quadrangle. Then he said: “Did Ellen walking out have anything to do with that?” He nodded to Wesley’s new electronic sidekick. “It did, didn’t it? You decided to read off the computer, just like the rest of us. To…what? Woo her back?”
“No,” Wesley said, because he didn’t want to tell the truth: in a way he still didn’t completely understand, he had done it to get back at her. Or make fun of her. Or something. “Not at all. I’m merely experimenting with new technology.”
“Right,” said Don Allman. “And I’m the new Poet Laureate.”
* * *
His car was in Parking Lot A, but Wesley elected to walk the two miles back to his apartment, a thing he often did when he wanted to think. He trudged down Moore Avenue, first past the fraternity houses, then past apartment houses blasting rock and rap from every window, then past the bars and take-out restaurants that serve as a life-support system for every small college in America. There was also a bookstore specializing in used texts and last year’s bestsellers offered at fifty per cent off. It looked dusty and dispirited and was often empty. Because people were home reading off the computer, Wesley assumed.
Brown leaves blew around his feet. His briefcase banged against one knee. Inside were his texts, the current book he was reading for pleasure (2666, by the late Roberto Bolano), and a bound notebook with beautiful marbleized boards. This had been a gift from Ellen on the occasion of his birthday.
“For your book ideas,” she had said.
In July, that was, when things between them had still been swell and they’d had the campus pretty much to themselves. The blank book had over two hundred pages, but only the first one had been marked by his large, flat scrawl.
At the top of the page (printed) was: THE NOVEL!
Below that was: A young boy discovers that his father and mother are both having affairs
A young boy, blind since birth, is kidnapped by his lunatic grandfather who
A teenager falls in love with his best friend’s mother and
Below this one was the final idea, written shortly after Ellen had thrown Deliverance across the room and stalked out of his life.
A shy but dedicated small college instructor and his athletic but largely illiterate girlfriend have a falling-out after
It was probably the best idea—write what you know, all the experts agreed on that—but he simply couldn’t go there. Talking to Don had been hard enough. And even then, complete honesty had escaped him. Like saying how much he wanted her back, for instance.
As he approached the three-room flat he called home—what Don Allman sometimes called his “bachelor pad”—Wesley’s thoughts turned to the Henderson kid. Was his name Richard or Robert? Wesley had a block about that, not the same as the block he had about fleshing out any of the fragmentary mission-statements for his novel, but probably related. He had an idea all such blocks were probably fear-centered and basically hysterical in nature, as if the brain detected (or thought it had detected) some nasty interior beast and had locked it in a cell with a steel door. You could hear it thumping and jumping in there like a rabid raccoon that would bite if approached, but you couldn’t see it.
The Henderson kid was on the football team—a noseback or point guard or some such thing—and while he was as horrible on the gridiron as any of them, he was a nice kid and a fairly good student. Wesley liked him. But still, he had been ready to tear the boy’s head off when he spotted him in class with what Wesley assumed was a PDA or a newfangled cell phone. This was shortly after Ellen had walked out. In those early days of the breakup, Wesley often found himself up at three in the morning, pulling some literary comfort-food down from the shelf: usually his old friends Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, their adventures recounted by Patrick O’Brian. And not even that had kept him from remembering the ringing slam of the door as Ellen left his life, probably for good.
So he was in a foul mood and more than ready for backtalk as he approached Henderson and said, Put it away. This is a literature class, not an Internet chat-room.
The Henderson kid had looked up and given him a sweet smile. It hadn’t lifted Wesley’s foul mood in the slightest, but it did dissolve his anger on contact. Mostly because he wasn’t an angry man by nature. He supposed he was depressive by nature, maybe even dysthymic. Hadn’t he always suspected that Ellen Silverman was too good for him? Hadn’t he known, in his heart of hea
rts, that the doorslam had been waiting for him from the very beginning, when he’d spent the evening talking to her at a boring faculty party? Ellen played like a girl; he played like a loser. He couldn’t even stay mad at a student who was goofing with his pocket computer (or Nintendo, or whatever it was) in class.
“It’s the assignment, Mr. Smith, the Henderson kid had said (on his forehead was a large purple bruise from his latest outing in the Meerkat blue). It’s ‘Paul’s Case.’ Look.”
The kid turned the gadget so Wesley could see it. It was a flat white panel, rectangular, less than half an inch thick. At the top was Amazon kindle and the smile-logo Wesley knew well; he was not entirely computer illiterate himself, and had ordered books from Amazon plenty of times (although he usually tried the bookstore in town first, partly out of pity; even the cat who spent most of its life dozing in the window looked malnourished).
The interesting thing on the kid’s gadget wasn’t the logo on top or the teeny-tiny keyboard (a computer keyboard, surely!) on the bottom. In the middle of the gadget was a screen, and on the screen was not a screen-saver or a video game where young men and women with buffed-out bodies were killing zombies in the ruins of New York, but a page of Willa Cather’s story about the poor boy with the destructive illusions.
Wesley had reached for it, then drew back his hand. “May I?”
“Go ahead,” the Henderson kid—Richard or Robert—told him. “It’s pretty neat. You can download books from thin air, and you can make the type as big as you want. Also, the books are cheaper because there’s no paper or binding.”
That sent a minor chill through Wesley. He became aware that most of his Intro to American Lit class was watching him. As a thirty-five-year-old, Wesley supposed it was hard for them to decide if he was Old School (like the ancient Dr. Wence, who looked remarkably like a crocodile in a three-piece suit) or New School (like Suzanne Montanari, who liked to play Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend in her Introduction to Modern Drama class). Wesley supposed his reaction to Henderson’s Kindle would help them with that. Mr. Henderson, he said, there will always be books. Which means there will always be paper and binding. Books are real objects. Books are friends.”