Sarah Glazer loves her new iPad for travel but finds it has drawbacks for complex plots.
My new iPad, purchased for a 24-hour flight to New Zealand, has been letting me read several books simultaneously but it’s a bad influence when it comes to finishing a novel that bogs down in the middle-- as I’m finding with David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. When sitting on a plane or a train I can just shift to another book I’ve downloaded and somehow feel less guilty about abandoning the first. (And the iPad keeps my place, after all.)
Grossman’s book so far is a beautifully sad meditation on what it’s like to be the mother of a son fighting in an Israeli conflict. The mother sets out on a hike across Israel, trying to convince herself that if she’s not at home to receive the notification that her son has been killed in action, it won’t happen. But I’m now at a point in the novel where we’re reviewing every baby step of the son’s infancy and toddlerhood, which I’m finding tiresome.
Grossman’s own son died tragically in combat during the 2006 Lebanon conflict, just after the novelist had come out publicly against the war (and when he was almost finished with this novel). So I felt a bit shamefaced at my impatient reaction to this highly-praised book until I read critic Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books, who blames Grossman’s overly complicated flashback technique for failing to hold the reader’s attention.
I’m 50 percent through the book, the iPad informs me, but without being able to rifle through physical pages to see what’s coming next, I’m less likely to finish.
I had no such problem with Howard Jacobson’s Booker-winning novel The Finkler Question, which had me laughing out loud from the first chapter and sighing at the end at his depiction of British Jewish intellectuals on the left. He’s the first writer I know to capture so well the dilemma faced surprisingly often here in England: Are you British or Jewish? It’s a stark dichotomy that American Jews rarely face these days in quite the same way. If you’re wondering why the Brits do, there’s no better explanation than Jacobson’s novel.
For a weekend trip to Paris, I downloaded New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon, his series of essays about living in Paris in the mid-1990s. Reading it on the train back to London helped me understand the discomfort I felt there—the contrast between the Romantic Experience one is expected to have and the reality. For me, this time it was gray skies, a bit of a tourist Disneyland and the sense that you always get from Parisians that they’re the center of the universe—even if they aren’t, as Gopnik points out. His description of his efforts to get his neighborhood Paris restaurants to provide takeout—unheard of there--is hysterical.
I loved Nicole Krauss’ Great House (my first iPad book) but got confused by the multiple plots. Without a paper book it’s hard to flip back and forth to recall when you last encountered a particular character or storyline. At first, Jewish loss and trauma seems to be the only common theme running through the intertwining narratives, each of which could stand on its own as a literary jewel, and I missed some of the crucial connections between them.
The members of my New York book club who have switched to the Kindle expressed even more frustration in following Krauss’ storyline because of the Kindle’s laborious page-turning technique- a click per page. It made me realize that the iPad actually has an advantage there: You can rifle through pages quite quickly simply by moving your finger across the screen. It’s just that my long-honed facility for finding the earlier-read passages in a dead tree book still feels more comfortable.
When we lost power during the Christmas blizzard up in New England, I discovered another advantage of the iPad. Even with ten candles burning, it was hard on my eyes deciphering my print books. (How did Abe Lincoln do it?) The iPad’s backlit screen provided all the light I needed even in a pitch-black room. Of course, I would have been out of luck when it came to recharging if the outage had lasted much more than a couple of days. Luckily the lights came on later that night as I was curled up smugly enjoying a new book with my iPad.