broken parabolic



Call me Ishmael.

2 January 2011

For a few years now, I've been doing a little amateur astronomy. I haven't taken it very far, really. My main telescope is a very modest little five-inch reflector on a manual equatorial mount. I have a motor drive for it, but nothing like the kind of computer-guided gadgetry that has become ubiquitous in the hobby now. I have a whopping three eyepieces, and a little set of four filters. Once in a while, I'll drop in on a popular message board for amateur astronomers.

It happens often on these message boards that a neophyte astronomer, one who has an interest in the hobby but hasn't yet purchased a telescope, will show up with the obvious and natural question: What telescope should I buy? This, of course, is invariably met with a chorus - or, more often, a cacophony - of answers. Some say go for focal length, for observing the planets. Some say go for aperture, gathering more light for deep-sky observation of galaxies and nebulae. Some will say the sensible thing, which is not to recommend a telescope so much as it is to ask more questions. In all of this, an axiom seems to have arisen: "The best telescope is the one you will use."

This piece of wisdom has its roots in the experience of former neophytes who, in their introduction to the hobby, went out and bought the biggest telescope they could afford. Yes, that scope would have brought them the brightest, most spectacular views of faint star clusters and distant galaxies. They quickly found, however, that the time and effort involved in setting it up proved too great for them to get it out of the basement more than once or twice a year. Oddly, the found that they could have spent less money and more time at the eyepiece had they bought a smaller, simpler instrument. They bought a scope by the mantra of "aperture is king" - which is true, all else being equal. But all else was not equal.

Which brings me to the nifty little box that showed up under the tree for me this Christmas, which was not a telescope. It was a Kobo eReader.

Thank you, honey.

For those of you who have never seen one of these things, be it a Kobo or Kindle or Nook or what have you, they look nothing like what you would expect. I would not have had any interest in one had I not actually handled one and seen it with my own eyes. I always assumed they would look something like an iPad, with a laptop-like screen. The actual screens on these things, though, couldn't be more unlike a laptop. It's almost unsettling at first. They emit no light. None. Were you to turn the lights off, you wouldn't be able to see the screen. It actually looks like a piece of paper with printed text on it that someone put in a frame. Really. I'm not lying.

Not surprisingly, though, there's a great deal of resistance to these things by avid readers and book-lovers. And I get it, I really do. I've often gone out of my way and spent way too much money to get the nice, well-bound, hardcover editions of books I love and want to keep (it's hard to resist the editions the Everyman's Library has been putting out for the past ten or fifteen years). I love my solid wood, six-foot-long bookshelf, built for me by my father years ago. Sometimes I like to just look across it, from one end to the other, and read the titles off the spines of the volumes. I love the haphazard lines they produce, all being different sizes and colours and thicknesses. I'll most likely pull one or two of them off the shelf and flip through them a little, looking for favourite passages. And of course, certain books have certain memories associated with them - the cold winter bus rides during my apprenticeship on which I read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, or a camping trip with my family during which I'd bought my paperback copy of Crime and Punishment. Most often, I'll examine my hardcover edition of The Brothers Karamazov, if for no other reason than that it is the novel which has influenced me most and has moved me to tears so many times.

I'm no stranger to the appeal and value of the physical object. But a question lingers: if I love books so much, why have I read so abysmally few of them in the past few years?

There are, of course, answers. They all sound trivial, but they really do add up. Mostly, I have little time to read at home, as the general demands of family life just make any solid chunks of time very difficult to find. At work, breaks are usually spent eating, which makes it hard to hold a book open. And though I have a job which actually permits me to read even while I'm being paid, the oil and coolant and grease of the workplace and the job itself often discourages me from bringing nice books, the only kind I would probably buy, to work. Larger books are unwieldy and hard to take along in a coat pocket to places where you might find yourself in a waiting room.

This is the part where the axiom about the telescopes will start to make sense.

I took the Kobo to work last week. I read Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which I've been meaning to read since high school and have owned a printed copy of since 1997 or so. It's a quick read, and I finished it in a day, mostly while my machine was actually running. That day, the merits of the Kobo revealed themselves. On breaks, I could set the thing down on my bench and eat with both hands, still reading all the while. While I was working, any two minute span during which my machine didn't need my immediate attention was spent reading, and it was far more significant than one would think that I didn't need to close the book to put it down, or flip back to my page when I picked it up again.

The Kobo is the book I actually use. I'd barely finished The Metamorphosis when I decided to take on Moby Dick, another I have never read, but one that was included on the Kobo. Also included were Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and who knows, I might take a crack at those. Books like that I would never carry around, but with an eReader they fit in my coat pocket so neatly as to barely be noticed.

And who knows? It could well be that the device itself becomes an old friend, a traveling companion that goes with me through these novels and stories. After all, it is the text, not the ink and paper, that are the work, no matter how much we fetishize those things. Talk to me in a year and I'll let you know if that actually happens. But for now, I've got a white whale to chase, and I'm actually a little excited about going to work tomorrow.

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