About a month ago, I sat in a coffee shop writing early in the morning, when I glanced at the screen of the man sitting next to me. He had a website with very scantily dressed women on it. I was taken aback, not by the content, but the fact he was willing to do this in a cramped coffee shop.
Now here is a confession. I am reading 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James, the first in a trilogy that at the time of writing are #1, #2, and #3 on Amazon’s Bestseller List. I share this fact to point out that I am probably not the only one reading it.
I have the novel on my kindle and, well, it has served as bedtime reading. Last week, I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, home of the Arc, the Cardinals and Budweiser. It also has a terrific children’s museum with a shark pool that you can toss your child in with ease.
My journey home was long and arduous, and I soon finished my magazines, exhausted my laptop battery and turned to my kindle. In the growing darkness, I curled up against the window and read 50 Shades of Grey.
On the second flight, I sat next to a young (female) lawyer who was reading litigation books and (I suspect) not happy to sit between two middle-aged guys, one of whom was trying to make conversation (the other guy, btw). On the third flight, I was placed next to two women who were discussing their church. I was self-conscious.
There is nowhere to hide your laptop screen but a kindle has only words. It occurred to me that with the advent of eReaders, people cannot discern what you are reading. There is no visible book cover. You are in your own world, anonymous and unaccountable.
I share this because I have recently read about a growing and flourishing erotic book business, spurred by short stories sold at $0.99 for the eBook. I wonder whether this has been because people are searching for more channels to explore their sexuality or because there is now a medium to read anonymously.
What excites me (bear with me) about this is the possibility that people will read books that are more risky politically. Perhaps someone growing up in a Christian family will dare to read about evolution, a gay teenager can find material to guide him/her through a turbulent journey, or an addict read a self-help support book on the train. We have seen how Twitter has played its part to overthrow oppressive regimes, how about the eReader?
But while the Internet and eReader can help push the boundaries of personal and political exploration, looking at erotic photos at Starbucks remains off limits.
Have a great weekend.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).