Bedside Manner: Sharing Shelf Space

My parents' Kindle library and me

I don't have a bedside table, or any books to put on it, anyway, not since I made the switch to an iPad. What I do have is this motivational poster Creative Director Jason Stout made me after we set fire to my parents' first-generation Kindle for a cover shoot in 2012.
I don't have a bedside table, or any books to put on it, anyway, not since I made the switch to an iPad. What I do have is this motivational poster Creative Director Jason Stout made me after we set fire to my parents' first-generation Kindle for a cover shoot in 2012. (photo by James Renovitch)

After a lot of resistance (read: self-righteous, swoony monologues about the tactile superiority of bound books), I’ve become a convert to e-reading. And I hit the jackpot with prodigious readers for parents who are kind to share their Kindle library with me despite my years of sneering about Amazon overlords and you can’t dog-ear a device, Daaad.

Most of the books I’ve read recently come from this shared library, including Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and David Nicholls’ A Question of Attraction. It adds a weird/fun fillip to the reader experience, these over-the-shoulder looks at what the other is reading, and anticipating my parents’ reactions to, say, the pornier parts of Atwood’s sex-robots, or the pop culture and political agitation in Nicholls’ bildungsroman set in Eighties-era England. (Of the latter, the many Kate Bush references don’t track with either of our generations. I liked Nicholls’ movie adaptation, Starter for 10, better. Teenage dunderheadedness goes down smoother when the dunderhead is played by James McAvoy.)

My parents are indulgent with my impulse buys on Kindle, too. I’m forever ordering books and reading a few pages, or a few hundred, then getting distracted; a week later, my ma is giving me a progress report on A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism, or Patricia Bosworth’s Montgomery Clift biography, or Stephen King’s On Writing memoir, and I’m astonished anew by how voraciously she reads – she’s in two book clubs – and how earnestly interested she is in what interests me. We Joneses aren’t an especially demonstrative clan, but my mother’s close reading of Hitchcock/Truffaut reads, to me, like a declaration of love.

The book I’m reading currently is on her recommendation – Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I got interested in Larson’s chronicle of the sinking of a British ocean liner by a German submarine in 1915 when my mom showed me the nifty Power Point presentation she made for her book club. (She’s a retired schoolteacher. Old habits die hard.) This is the first book I’ve read by Larson, a narrative nonfiction wiz who wrote the bestselling The Devil in the White City, about a hotelier/serial killer who used the 1893 World’s Fair to lure in guests who never checked out. I’m not that far yet into Dead Wake, but so far so good. “Readable” is a dumb word to use about a book, but Larson makes dense, often technical information – about maritime rules during wartime, or the 1,000 tons of coal shoveled a day to keep the Lusitania afloat – just that.

I can be a pokey reader, but I’m fast-tracking Dead Wake for a reason: I’m going, a little nervously, on my first-ever cruise at the end of July, and I reckon it’s too fate-tempting to sink into a deck chair with a book about an infamous sea disaster.

So what’s good reading for seven days on a ship? First, I’m queuing up Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, Lindy West’s memoir, released just last month from Hachette Books. There are a lot of reasons why you should know West’s name – from her former work at The Stranger (her savaging of Sex and the City 2 is the stuff of legend), on the frontline of the rape jokes in comedy war, and her devastating piece for This American Life about confronting, and coming to some peace with, an internet troll. Last Sunday’s This American Life featured excerpts from her new book alongside an extended interview with West about what it means to be fat – to own not just the word, but a sense of well-being in one’s body. (The whole episode, "Tell Me I'm Fat," is a knockout. You can hear it here.)

I figure I'll blast through Shrill by the time we leave dock, so I'll need a backup book. I’ve already read David Foster Wallace’s thematically on-point essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. (Google "David Foster Wallace on a cruise" and you can find a PDF of the original piece, "Shipping Out," that he wrote for Harper's Magazine in 1996.) Instead, I’m planning on tackling another one of those impulse buys too long back-burnered: DFW’s Infinite Jest. One-thousand pages weighs very little when tucked inside an iPad – and better I lose myself in that than obsessively scanning the horizon for U-boats.

Kim Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The Austin Chronicle and a contributing film critic. Not a strong swimmer.

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Bedside Manner, Dead Wake, A Question of Attraction, The Heart Goes Last, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Infinite Jest, Summer Reading 2016

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