Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Too Much Happiness

On the recommendation of several friends, I've been test-driving the Amazon Kindle app on my iPhone, and I've got to say I'm impressed. It took me about half a minute to download my first two books: Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness, and a book called The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, which is one of a lot of books available for free via the Kindle app interface.

Reading a book on the iPhone couldn't be easier. You navigate to the opening pages via the usual tap-to-select process. Once you're on the page, you tap on the right side of the page to move forward, on the left to move back, or in the middle to bring up a semi-transparent command bar that allow you to change text size or color, navigate to a specified page, or perform various other operations. You press and hold on a word, and a little dialogue bar comes up that allows you to either highlight or annotate that word. Turn the phone sideways, and you can read in landscape mode. If you want to lock it so that it stays in landscape (or portrait) no matter how you turn the iPhone, you can do that as well.

The screen is very clean and readable and easy on the eyes. The text comes at you in manageable chunks, and you can set a print size that gives you more text per screen, or less, as you prefer.

This sample image is for some reason more pixelated than the actual one on the iPhone screen, which is very clean and sharp. And it has the great advantage of being readable whether you are in daylight or in darkness. Last night I went to pick up my wife from class and was sitting outside in the car for perhaps fifteen minutes. Normally I would have tried to read a book, and would have been angling it to catch the light from a streetlight and squinting at it as I craned my neck. Instead, I sat there with the phone resting on the steering wheel for stability, finished one of Munro's short stories, and began another.

Alice Munro, let it be said, is one of the most capable and assured writers on the planet. She's got what amounts to perfect pitch as a writer. Her characters are ordinary people, in the throes of the dilemmas of ordinary life, and her renderings of them are deft and clean and dead on. But despite the clarity and simplicity of her writing style, she is remarkably adept at revealing the inner depths, the psychological complexities of her characters, in a manner that is acutely perceptive, often devastatingly so, and yet also compassionate. (The middle paragraph in the passage shown above is not atypical: how quickly the young woman is sketched, and how efficiently her character is nailed down in the sequence "Broad shoulders, thick bangs,tight ponytail, no possibility of a smile.")

Munro is not a satirist. She does not condescend to her characters. She is a scientist of the imagination, a writer whose powers of observation are deployed in the service of understanding.  She's certainly one of the wisest writers I know.

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