This morning I reset my Kindle to address a memory issue. I went nuclear and used the factory reset option. That erases everything on the device.
I like the idea of full erase. To me, wide-open unused space is desirable, especially on a hard drive. Maybe it’s an American thing–the lure of the open range and the West. It also appeals to the minimalist in me. My sock drawer is more than half empty. I like it that way. How many pairs of socks do I need? On the other hand, erasing books? Think about your bookshelves. Ours groan under the weight of the books we read last year, and the year before, and the year before that, going way back in time. Your books form you, become a part of you. Picture those shelves completely empty. A little dust, a few stray bookmarks and receipts. Nothing else. It’s like mind erase. I’ve seen dementia. It looks like that.
While I’m fixing my Kindle–at least I hope I’m fixing it–my wife sits across the table from me reading the paper. Well, reading the iPad. We’ve had our minimalist breakfast, egg and crunchy dry whole grain toast.
She says, without looking up, “According to this, the human bite changed over time. From an edge-to-edge bite to an overbite.” She fixes her mouth, shows me first one bite, then the other. “If hadn’t been for overbite, we couldn’t pronounce the letter F or V.”
I’m only half listening.
“Smithsonian Magazine.” She shows me her screen, insists I look. “They’re called labiodental sounds.” She points at her mouth, then touches her bottom lip to her top row of teeth, practices saying F words, V words.
In front of me, on the table, Kindle. A push of a button is all it takes. Five years of reading, gone.
“Fava,” she says. “Vivacious.”
I wonder out loud if Arabs have F words. Or Eskimos.
“Forest. Figs. Filigree.”
Settings>Options>Reset. I tap the icon and the screen goes dark. Taking a sip of coffee, I watch and wait. The kitchen still smells like toast.
“Falafel,” I say.
The re-boot starts. This will take Kindle a few minutes.
For a week or so I’ve been working my way through a novel by Marco Vichi, called Per Nessun Motivo (For No Reason), on my Kindle. It’s about a guy in his sixties who learns he has a daughter from a love affair in Paris thirty years ago, before he met his wife, before he settled down to become a rich industrialist in Tuscany. His wife discovers an old undelivered letter from the woman in Paris, informing him that he has a daughter. Undelivered because his wife opened the letter thirty years ago and then hid it from him. For whatever reason, she gives him the letter now. That’s chapter one.
His name is Antonio. He decides he has to make things right. He goes to Paris, searches for the daughter’s mother, who turns out to be dead, and for his daughter, who is alive and well, a philosophy student who also works in a real estate office. He arranges to meet her, assuming an alias to hide his identity, and the story unfolds. Should he tell her who he is? Will telling her harm or help her? Will she love him or hate him? The letter, the alias, the dissembling–it’s all kind of Shakespearean, with an Italian accent.
The nice thing about reading in a foreign language on a Kindle is the “translation” accessory. Touch a word, the translation pops up. Another nice thing is that Kindle remembers the words you looked up, stores them in its memory, and will show them to you in list form or play them back on flashcards for vocab drills. Sobbolzare. To start, jump, jerk.
My Italian is pretty good, but I’m also a pretty touchy reader. In the five years I’ve been reading Italian novels on this Kindle, the device has accumulated a long list, hundreds of words that I should have been studying all along. At this point it’s just too many. Anyway, who needs to study when with the touch of a finger you can translate a word?
Unless, you know, you want to remember those words.
When I was eighteen I was in a car wreck and broke both legs. I had to spend four months not walking, mostly confined to a hospital bed. It was like house arrest. This was pre-Kindle, pre-tablet, pre-computer, pre-cable TV, pre-VCR; pre-pre. To kill time I read a lot of books. While I read, I decided to work on my vocabulary. I fancied myself becoming bookish. Of necessity, my approach was old school. Set the book down, pick up a dictionary, look up the word and its definition; go back to the book and resume reading. It was a long interruption.
After doing this for a while I found myself looking up some of the same words a second, third, even fourth time. These repeated visits to the dictionary, the repetitive motion of setting my book down and looking up the word and then setting the dictionary down and going back to my book, in short, the work and the interruption and, above all, the forgetting, got on my nerves. I started writing down words and definitions, keeping a list, and looking at the list. I looked at it every day. I could feel my vocab burgeoning.
Now it’s happening all over. I look up some of the same words in Italian again and again. Why can’t I remember? Sconvolgere. I’ve looked that word up (easily, instantaneously, with the flick of a finger) 15-20 times. To devastate. To move deeply. Just now, writing this essay, I actually looked up sconvolgere again.
I’ve wiped Kindle’s hard drive so I can start a new list. I don’t want hundreds of words. I only want a few words at a time. It’s like my socks.
Her name is Corinne. Through the real estate office Antonio–he calls himself Mauro–arranges to meet his daughter at an apartment he pretends he wants to buy. He finds wily ways of eliciting personal information. He wants to know but cannot directly ask: What did her mother tell her? Does she know who her father was? Antonio/Mauro thinks, Should I tell her?
His heart is in the right place, but things get a little creepy. He watches her come and go at her apartment. He follows her to breakfast and lunch and arranges surprise visits. Hey, mind if I sit? They have dinner. They go to bars and clubs. Before each meeting he tells himself: this is it. Tonight I’ll tell her. I am your father. Then he doesn’t.
“Never memorize something you can look up.” I’m glad Einstein said that. It lets me off the hook. Except Einstein was talking about stuff you’ll need to know only once in a while. It takes Jupiter 4333 days to orbit the sun. The square root of 13 is 3.6055512755. The melting point of Zenon is -169.2°F (-111.8°C). A lot of those Italian words I might not need again for a long time, maybe never. The word for snout, for example, I could just look up when I needed it.
But there’s all kinds of stuff, basic factual stuff, we need to know or we want to know. And the more the better. The speed of light would be important to Einstein. The Italian verb sconvolgere has become important to me (along with a number of other words).
Conventional wisdom these days is that devices make us lazy and diminish us. A few years back Nicholas Carr made a number of trenchant observations on that subject in the Atlantic Monthly (see “Is Google Making us Stupid”). Kids especially, the argument goes, remember less because they don’t have to remember. They have a short attention span, no mental muscles, no capacity to concentrate and remember. The opposing view is that devices free us to remember and think about other things. We free up cerebral disk space. So what if I no longer remember 25 phone numbers. My phone remembers them. So what if I ask Google for the population of Burundi and then forget it. I’m busy thinking about other things. (Just don’t ask me what those other things are right now.)
Antonio/Mauro and Corinne go together to the Atlantic shore for the weekend (separate rooms). The more he sees her, the more he likes her, loves her. The better he gets to know his daughter, the more he wants to compensate for his absence from her life up to that time. But: If he tells her the truth, she might hate him.
In the corner of my device, Kindle indicates I’ve read 75 percent of the story. For a long time I missed seeing page numbers. I missed seeing the cover of the book. Half the time I can’t tell you the title of the book I’m reading. I open my Kindle cover and there I am, on 45 percent. I’m not sure who the author is. (But I can find out if I need to know.)
“Our hominin ancestors may have cooked food . . . which made it softer.” So says Jordi Marcé-Nogué, an expert on jaw evolution in primates at the University of Hamburg, adding, “That contributed to changes in the shape of the skull and mandible, which made way for a more complex brain.” It was a big step in human evolution, an inflection point. More complex brain meant, eventually, more complex language. Forest and figs. And, thousands of years later, filigree and falafal.
We may be at another inflection point today, with the device-ification of human thought. What will the long-term impact of digital technology be? Maybe Google is making us stupid. Or maybe, as Andy Clark, at University of Edinburgh, and David Chalmers, at the Australian National University, argue, computer and tablet and smartphone and Google are all part of “extended mind.” Mind, as they characterize it, is “a system made up of the brain plus parts of its environment.” Your diary is extended mind. It helps you remember stuff. Your spouse, they argue, is extended mind. She helps you remember stuff. And now your smartphone and computer are extended mind. Maybe we shouldn’t be alarmed.
I’m at 90 percent, still waiting for Antonio/Mauro to say the words “I am your father.” “Sono tuo padre.” “Je suis ton pere.” Contrary to what the title says (Per Nessun Motivo) he has his reasons for delay, among them, getting me to hang on until the end of the story.
The end of the story—I’m won’t spoil it for you—is outrageous.
When I scan my new word list on my factory reset Kindle, I’m surprised to see how many words I looked up in an hour or two of reading. A dozen or more. Which words do I really need? Ardesia (slate, as in slate roof). Bruscio (hum, babble). Prua (prow or bow of a boat). Pedinare (to shadow, dog, tail). Sbronzo (plastered, sloshed). Proboscide (snout). Do I need to know these words?
How do we know what we need to know?
Honestly, I can probably get along without some of them. Though with a little study (flashcard me, Kindle) I can acquire them. A little study. A little daily effort. There’s an old-fashioned concept for you. Do the work. Love the device; do the work. Look at the word list every time I go to Kindle. Concentrate on the higher frequency look-ups (sconvolgere), extending my mind to Kindle. With time and effort, my Italian vocabulary could germogliare (burgeon), though that’s a word, like proboscide, I may never need. To know them for now is good enough.