October 6, 2012
Irony on the Mississippi
Some people have a thing against writing in books; I don’t. I love a book best that is obviously well-loved and well-marked. It’s one of those things that I thought would irk my romantic self about the Kindle, even as my practical self couldn’t really argue against free books that take up no space.
In this manner I came to be reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi on my Kindle…somewhat bittersweetly. It’s largely about the heartbreak of the loss of the entire occupation of steamboating–its skill set, way of life, and all of its romanticism–to superior and more cost-effective technology–the railroads–in a stunningly short amount of time.
But lo and behold, the Kindle preserves at least some of the functionality, if not the rough beauty, of other readers’ notes and underlinings. This is probably not news to very many people but me, but I’m still figuring this thing out…but you can not only make your own underlinings and clippings of text, but see how many other readers underlined a passage for saving. And reading backstage one night, I found that five other readers, at least of this digital edition of Life on the Mississippi, had underlined the following:
De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542.
Disappointment for my fellow readers swelled, for the paragraph from which at least FIVE of them had extracted that fragment as the vital piece of information actually reads:
To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;–as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don’t see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of it.
Teh irony it hurtz sometimes. I wanted to smack my forehead on something in frustration, the way you would with a normal book, but I was afraid of hurting the Kindle.
Twain attempted to convey the sheer insufficiency of factoid to describe the age and majesty of the river when compared to the ridiculously small amount of time for which European settlers had been taking it for granted, and the significance that all of my fellow book underliners took from it…was the barest factoid, without context, that could be extracted from Twain’s vivid warning simile, in his long love song to a thing incomprehensibly old and powerful when compared to human civilization and understanding.
I seem to recall Twain having sardonic things to say about human intellectual density. I could nearly hear him sighing from his grave.