By Suzanne Crowley
Yesterday while purchasing Clearasil at Walgreens, I lamented to the older woman behind the counter about having to purchase teenage zit cream at age 48. “I don’t remember any of my mother’s generation having pimples,” I told her. “They all had skin like Grace Kelly.” The lady responded, “That’s because you young ladies are too stressed out. Your mother’s and my generation sat on the front porch, listened to Elvis, and watched the world go by.”
I was commiserating recently with a fellow writer, a well-known picture book author, on this very topic—most of my friends are depressed, anxious, and can’t sleep. “It’s a generational thing. We are too plugged in. Too wired up. Our brains are not ready for all this technology, and it has put us in overload,” she agreed.
Gone are the days when I’d see women reading books at the doctor’s office, in the carpool line, or waiting for our children at karate or gymnastics. There was a certain camaraderie there; we book lovers shared serenity from life’s daily overload. When we’d spot one another, we’d trade stories about our beloved books—whether they were classics or current New York Times bestsellers—recommending them or not; we’d discuss our book clubs and how we’d all end up talking more about life than the book. But at least we’d read and we’d share our experiences. It gave our minds time to rest, a respite from life’s stresses. “We read to know we are not alone,” C. S. Lewis once said.
I’ve seen a big shift in my fellow readers in the last year or so. Gone are the dog-eared, lovingly held paperbacks, the reader glancing back at the cover every now and then, giggling at the funny parts, stifling a tear sometimes, engrossed in another world. Instead everyone has an iPad, iPod, iPhone, or whatever the latest gadget is. Now they bond over the gossip from Radar Online, or good buys on Valentino or Vera Wang on Gilt.com and Rue La La. Or trade apps like Words With Friends (allegedly what Alec Baldwin was playing when he famously got kicked off an American Airlines flight), or Weird Laws. (Did you know, for example, it is illegal in Miami for a man to wear any kind of strapless gown?) Or Expedition White Shark, an app my eleven-year-old son showed me, that allows one to track white sharks by satellite. (They’re congregating in the Pacific right now, FYI.) And although all my friends very smugly claim they can still download their books on their iPads, or whatever, I never see them reading. NEVER. Their monkey thumbs fly all over the keyboard like backwater banjo players. Not even on airplanes do I see Kindles or Nooks anymore—at least on those they were reading a book, albeit electronically. It’s all laptops and iPads and iPhones. No books in sight. Sorry, I can tell the difference. You are not reading fiction anymore. The lure of immediate gratification is stronger.
“But we have to multitask,” one of my sisters-in-law explained to me. “We constantly have to catch up. Read our e-mails, check-in to Facebook. It makes us feel better that we are plugged in.”
Alas, I was one of the great holdouts—the last dinosaurs, according to my kids. I recently pulled out my three-year-old Blackberry and my lunch companion asked, “What is that?” as though she were looking at one of the Ice Man’s prehistoric tools. I have, though, recently purchased an iPad and have unfortunately quickly become addicted. I do still bring my paperback with me, but the iPad comes too, “just in case.” And which usually wins over? One never knows when an important e-mail has just arrived, or someone has posted an important Facebook status update (like what they consumed for lunch). I started The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, a week ago. Two doctor’s appointments, three karate lessons, music lessons, several guitar and voice lessons later, and I’m on page twenty two. TWENTY-TWO! I used to be able to read a 300-page novel in five hours. Gone are the days of being so engrossed in a book that dinner boiled over on the stove and the laundry sat wrinkled in the dryer and five episodes of Real Housewives sat unwatched on TiVo. Like Pavlov’s dogs we are, hooked up to our electronics, but even though we are plugged in, aren’t we really still alone?
Reading gives us a real emotional connection to the world, more than any electronic device can. Let’s put our gadgets down, for goodness’ sake, sit on the porch, listen to the King, and READ. Perhaps, at the very least, we might have skin like Grace Kelly’s.