I am less important than a piece of plastic. Actually, I’m less important than an electrified hunk of plastic that lets you text, tweet, play music, web surf, play Angry Birds, and replicate noises made by the human anus. My 16-year-old niece, Wendy, made sure I understood this last week as she sat on the other end of my couch communing with her smart phone as if it were an iBuddha. Her ear buds protected her in case I wanted to talk about the weather, or the horrible old days when we found things by using maps and the Yellow Pages. She had merged her eyes with that tiny screen, and as far as she was concerned I could have been another sunflower-print couch cushion.
At one point I thought she might reenter the world of human beings when she lowered her phone, but I heard her ear buds still blaring something that might be music, or it might be someone building shelves with a variable speed drill. She snaked one hand into her messenger bag and pulled out a Kindle. I’d given it to her for Christmas, hoping she’d read something more complex than a description of a YouTube video. Indeed, she now began reading, her head twitching in time with the music.
Feeling a bit frustrated and whiny, I snatched my own smart phone and fired off a text to her: I’m sitting right here. WTF? A moment later she raised her phone to read my subtle hint, and then she pulled out the ear buds and smiled at me. “Sorry, I got distracted. What’s up?”
I suggested that blinders might solve her distraction problem, and she shrugged. Then all of my ideas for conversation evaporated. Now that I had Wendy’s attention I had nothing to say. Looking around like a dope, I spotted the Kindle and asked how she liked it.
“It’s great! I read all the Twilight books on it.”
I should have just nodded, but being less important than a piece of plastic had worn down my self-esteem and patience. I said a couple of bad things about Twilight. I might have used the words “puerile” and “skank.”
Wendy said, “Come on, it’s not that bad, you know, just lighten up a little. I mean, it was nice of you to give me those other books like Moby Dick and The Age of Reason, but, well… at least I’m using it, you know?”
This had been my second greatest fear. The greatest fear was that she’d never read anything more sophisticated than one-sentence tweets and blog posts about shopping for lip gloss. But my second fear was that she was just going to read the literary equivalent of Pop Tarts, and that’s meager fare with which to feed your soul.
I thought about Tecumseh’s magnificent observation, “When the legends die, the dreams end; there is no more greatness.” Then, like I had Tourette’s or something, I blurted out old Tecumseh’s sliver of wisdom and preened as if I’d just delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
She stared at me for an uncomfortable time before saying, “Huh?”
I looked down at the Cheese Whiz stain on the couch cushion and sighed.
“Well, I read other stuff too,” she said. “Everybody who was reading Twilight was talking about The Hunger Games too, so I read those books. The movie was good, even though they left out some stuff.”
Gazing at her like a dog that hoped she had a beef rib in her pocket, I asked if she’d read anything else.
“Yeah, I figured that was a sci-fi game thing with kids, so I found this book called Ender’s Game. It was really cool.”
My head popped up, and I peered at her to see if she was kidding. She didn’t look like she was yanking me around. In fact, she looked like she’d forgotten me again as her phone buzzed and she read the incoming text. I dared to ask her what she was reading now.
She rolled her eyes at the text and said, “I liked the Ender thing, so there’s this website that says what books are like other books. It said that Huckleberry Finn was kind of like Ender, so I’m reading that now.”
I tried not to let my mouth drop open. Instead I asked her whether she liked it.
“It’s pretty good,” she said. “It’s better than the creaky old books they make us read at school. It’s pretty funny.”
I told Wendy that I thought it was funny too, and I said some other stuff that was probably stupid. I don’t remember because I was marveling that she’d gone from Twilight to Huckleberry Finn in six months. It struck me that reading is reading, no matter what you read, and for some kids Twilight must be like a gateway drug, except that it leads to Brave New World instead of shooting up smack.
Swimming in hope and satisfaction, I asked Wendy if she planned to read Tom Sawyer next.
“Nah, I think I’ll read a couple of those racy romances. Mom reads them all the time.”
I dug my fingernails into my leg, smiled, and nodded. After a few seconds she went back to her Kindle, apparently assuming from my glassy silence that the conversation was over. I kept telling myself that reading is reading, even if the book’s cover features a bare-chested pirate with no body hair and de-emphasized nipples.
So what if tomorrow she’s reading a romance like Pirate’s Raging Passion? Six months from now it could be a romance like Wuthering Heights.