Chance Encounters, Human Connection, Real Books and Kindle

Waiting for a flight at an airport can be a dull and lonely thing. Sitting at a half-empty terminal last week, these costs evaporated when I noticed that the guy sitting next to me was reading Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant historical work “The Guns of August”. Recognizing the book by its cover, I said as I sat down “That’s a magnificent book”.

His eyes lit up: “It *is* magnificent”. Off we went into a discussion of French military strategy, Kaiser Wilhelm’s sense of cultural inferiority, British diplomacy and the nature of war. On we rambled to Tuchman’s other books, the foreign policy of President Kennedy (Guns of August was among his favorite books) and then to our own lives. It turned out that he was an orthopedic surgeon in the Army. This triggered another discussion about modern warfare injuries, far forward medicine, our experiences in Iraq, and the problems facing wounded veterans.

The flight was called. The time had flown and I was sorry to go. I thanked him for his service and boarded my flight, happy that a chance human connection had lessened the isolation of travel for both of us.

Reflecting upon this experience later, I realized that the only reason the conversation started was that he had a physical book with a recognizable cover in his hands. I have participated and observed many such animated exchanges on buses, planes, trains and park benches over the years. They all started in roughly the same way: The sighting by one party of a familiar book, a comment about the volume and then, a chance pleasant connection between strangers.

As we move from real books to Kindles and the like, seeing what the person across the way is perusing becomes much more difficult. It’s all a shiny text screen to anyone but the reader. There are advantages I am sure, for example fewer interruptions for those who want to read silently and in peace without engaging their neighbors. But I am sorry anyway, as it seems to me another way that our new electronic technologies isolate us from the people in our physical presence.

Comments

  1. Warren Terra says

    This is somewhat true, but on the other hand – while I don’t think I’d ever use the functions myself – ebook readers are increasingly adopting social networking functions, so that you can broadcast to the world what books you are reading or have recently read, and what you’ve thought of them, and can make contact with others with similar interests.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Warren Terra: You are right of course, the new technologies do allow far more connection with people who are not physically present. Goodreads (I think that’s the name) is a website that lets people have these interactions about books they have all read. We can definitely connect more than at any time in human history with far away people, though it comes at the cost of not connecting with the people sitting next to us.

    • Maynard Handley says

      Not to mention, soon enough we’ll have shirts (or at least vests to go over the shirt) with LEDs and Bluetooth in them. If you are so inclined, you’ll be able to broadcast to the world what you’re listening to, what you’re reading, your Facebook status, your political and sexual preferences, and anything else you so desire.

  2. CharlesWT says

    Bluetooth could be added to Kindle and like devices allowing users, if they so wish, to broadcast the titles and descriptions of the book(s) they are reading, check out the books being read by other readers within range and perhaps invite a fellow reader to have a discussion about the book(s).

    • Seth says

      Was just about to say the same thing. If two of us thought of it, there may well be some entrepreneur preparing to build it ;)

  3. Ed Whitney says

    I had heard that Guns of August was on JFK’s mind in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, having been published the summer before. The narrative is that while his generals were thinking it was 1938 all over again and that they needed to act aggressively to prevent another Munich, Kennedy was thinking it was 1914 all over again and a series of miscalculations would lead to the ultimate catastrophe.

    I was puzzled by some aspects of Guns of August, though. I think that Tuchman made virtually no mention of Austrian Foreign Minister Count Leopold von Berchtoldt, whom S.L.A. Marshall blames for deliberately lying and deceiving the world into war; Marshall assesses him, not Wilhelm II, as the principal villain of summer of 1914. One author’s main architect of war is another author’s nonentity. If it is accurate to say that Berchtoldt’s actions in bringing Germany into the situation transformed a localized crisis into a general European conflagration, it is odd that Tuchman did not talk about it.

    Anyone else puzzled by this?

    • Seth says

      I’ve just been reading the post-war diaries of Harry Kessler, who certainly seems to have believed the decisive push for war originated with diplomats in Vienna rather than from the top in Berlin. For example, his entry for 23 June 1919:

      “In the morning a letter from Dietrich Bethmann, who according to his own account is one of those principally responsible for the war.”

      A footnote in Ian Buruma’s edition of the diaries explains that Bethmann was a German diplomat in Vienna when his cousin Theobald was Chancellor.

      And from the following day:

      “In the evening to a meeting at Gerlach’s to listen to a disquisition by Montgelas on the war-guilt question. … The point that Montgelas diplomatically describes as requiring clarification is why the Serb answer, known in Vienna on 25 July, was not cabled or telephoned. Sent by courier, it did not arrive in Berlin until 27 July. The delay strongly influenced the Berlin Government during these critical hours to adopt an intransigent attitude. Immediately the Serb answer became available, moderating pressure was put on Vienna by Berlin. Meanwhile, however, matters in Russia and elsewhere had taken their course.

      This, it is clear to me, is the core of the war-guilt question as far as we are concerned. It also throws a fresh light for me on what Dietrich Bethmann told me [the day before]. At Vienna he and Hoyos, on his own admission, made the most of every opportunity to bring about war. I surmise that he was partly guilty of the singularly slow transmission of the Serb answer. He may have been afraid that his cousin Theobald [then Chancellor] would ‘give in’, should he learn of its contents in time.”

      But I’m hardly an expert on the subject, and don’t know what other evidence Tuchman may have considered more important.

  4. dave schutz says

    The Tuchman book which most influenced me is March of Folly, theme being people who act for their advancement within organizations (Athens, US Military, Vatican, British Foreign Office) in ways which are absolutely ruinous for the organizations over time. It’s been hugely useful to me in looking at, well, the Dems, the Reeps, General Motors. Very hard to understand that the organization in which you are trying to make your life is in fact vulnerable, and that you can hurt it badly.

  5. Joe says

    And if aside from the above mentioned electronic display of the identity of the book, the ereader just displayed the title? Why oh why the obsession with a particular feature of paper books that, while often but not necessarily part of that experience, when it could be replicated in the next iteration of ebooks? Just ask for it

  6. TS says

    ‘Social networking’, different ways of adapting electronic media to communicating with others, is changing not only *how* people communicate (radical enough just on its own) but their expectations of what constitutes “quality” in the communications they create.

    It’s also very definitely a generational difference: People in my age cohort (who grew up in an era of handwritten, posted letters; typing classes; copper-wire telephones; the beginnings of cable television and personal computers) can acquire the skills to navigate and adapt to a Twitter-fed world as an *adjunct* to daily life, but people born in the past twenty or so years rely more on those same skills as *a normal part* of their lives to use the electronic tools sold in the marketplace. It’s a bit like having a third, electronic limb.

    As I go about my work and private life in a major West-coast urban area in the United States, I’m surprised, amused, and sad by turns at the number of people, continually texting, focused on the tiny screens of their Smartphones, or looking off into a middle distance while listening to their iPods. I’d agree that this isolates; and, while people still do talk with each other, conversations don’t seem to depend on a wider or nuanced vocabulary to convey shades of meaning — they’re in bursts, catchphrases, much like Twitterfeed.

    Starting a conversation with a complete stranger is, really, an art — and Tuchman’s book was a great place to begin. But there’s a great deal of fear in the world, engendered by our political overlords — a topic for another time — and our personal electronics are built for a world where the Other is to be kept at arms’ length, mistrusted.

    You can’t see the cover of “Guns Of August” on a Kindle or a Nook because those devices weren’t built with an expectation of starting a conversation with a stranger. In the electronic world, one can claim to be “connected” with thousands — but at the same time have real difficulty dealing with the person sitting right next to you, or establishing connections with intimacy and depth.

  7. Maynard Handley says

    “Starting a conversation with a complete stranger is, really, an art — and Tuchman’s book was a great place to begin. But there’s a great deal of fear in the world, engendered by our political overlords — a topic for another time — and our personal electronics are built for a world where the Other is to be kept at arms’ length, mistrusted.

    You can’t see the cover of “Guns Of August” on a Kindle or a Nook because those devices weren’t built with an expectation of starting a conversation with a stranger. In the electronic world, one can claim to be “connected” with thousands — but at the same time have real difficulty dealing with the person sitting right next to you, or establishing connections with intimacy and depth.”

    Heck of a lot of assertion here about what people do and don’t want out of life (and “they” who are forcing them in one direction rather than another) but rather light on facts.
    To take just one example, we have had enough people for long enough meeting each other electronically leading to marriages that we should be able to put together some meaningful statistics. Do people who meet electronically (thus, to TS’ mind “artificially”, but from a larger pool, with the ability to encounter people you normally wouldn’t) stay together/have “better”|happier marriages than those who met in real life? I don’t know — but I also don’t feel the need to insist on having an opinion.

    I, for one, love the fact that I can perform a variety of errands while listening to a variety of lectures from iTunes U — I know vastly more about wide swathes of human knowledge than I did fifteen years ago, and not just because I am fifteen years older. If people want to talk to those around them they will do so. “What you reading?”, “So what do you think of the Kindle Fire — better than the old eInk versions?”, “Didn’t you prefer it when our books had covers?”

    What is being bemoaned here is a very limited phenomenon of minor importance to most people in the world, it is not some society-altering change. People are people, and social animals. Electronics doesn’t change that. If you want a refutation — a very obvious and in-your-face refutation — go to grindr.com

    • TS says

      Methods and models of communication change. There are benefits in older modes that may get lost in the New, and benefits you can’t get in any other way but through popular technology and methods. It comes down to what people prefer or find most useful.

      A good example is what M. Handley appeared to indicate (“I know vastly more about wide swathes of human knowledge than I did fifteen years ago”), and that’s using the Net for research. It’s strictly my preference, but I use it to find broad facts, quickly. I’ve only used it a few times to look for real detail, but (depending on the subject) I found it might not replace contacting or spending time at a university or technical library, dealing with hardcopy. When and if the content of major libraries are digitized, that may be less of a question — but at present it’s a matter of what works for the individual.

      I’d disagree that technology doesn’t change people; of course it does. Just the assertion that as individuals we can ‘know vastly more’ is a terrific change. One’s opinion about that depends on what, and which aspects of, changes in technology people are individually comfortable with. Change, and opinions about it, involve individual choices. And it’s nice to be able, in a respectful way, to offer those opinions whether others, respectfully, agree or not.

      That said, it’s always curious to find others who know my mind better that I do myself, or offer opinions or positions as mine which I may or may not hold.

  8. Katja says

    Well. I guess it’s time for a short rant. :) It will not be about how books affect our social lives, but it will be about physical vs. electronic books.

    I’m not using an ebook reader myself. Or even a smartphone, for that matter.

    It’s not that I’m really a born Luddite. I even have a Ph.D. in computer science. I use computers daily, both for my work and privately. Between my husband and me, we own more computers than there are people in our household. If need be, I can even be handy with a soldering iron (not my area of expertise, but I’m not hardware-illiterate, either).

    The primary reason why I’m not using an electronic ebook reader, but prefer physical books, is typography. Or the near complete lack thereof in ebooks. Reading books on a Kindle or Kobo is simply not the same as reading a properly typeset book. I am confident that whoever designed the software for those readers never laid hand on a copy of Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style”. Ebook readers make Microsoft Word look like professional DTP software.

    Then, this article struck a chord with me. Especially the line where he writes that “it’s a novocaine drip to the wrist”. I like it when things are tangible, have textures, feel, smell, character. I like to run my fingertips along the side of a page. I like the smell of printed books. I like the sound that pages make when they’re being turned. In short, I like that they’re physical things, and ebooks don’t give me any of that feedback, don’t engage my senses other than sight (and even that, very imperfectly); they’re soulless bit patterns inside machines that lack individuality.

    As I said, I also don’t own a smartphone, but that’s for slightly different reasons. I don’t need or want a device that organizes my life wherever I go; to keep track of appointments in the long term, I have a perfectly functioning computer, and I’m not in such a rush that I can’t keep the appointments for a day in my head. I prefer to talk to people rather than messaging them and in general I like to keep my social life offline (except that I use Skype frequently to talk to my parents in America). If my life ever got so hectic that I needed to be accompanied by a smartphone, I’d look at reorganizing my life instead.

    That said, that’s just me. To each their own. My husband loves his iPhone. His grandmother, with her failing eyes, benefits greatly from being able to enlarge the font on her Kobo Reader; it allows her to read even though she has otherwise great difficulty reading printed books or papers, even with her glasses. But I think there are plenty of things that electronic media can’t give us, at least not yet, and that there’s some risk of sensory deprivation.

    • Tim says

      If my life ever got so hectic that I needed to be accompanied by a smartphone, I’d look at reorganizing my life instead.

      Amen, sister.

Trackbacks