Wednesday, April 22, 2009 posted by Jen at 4/22/2009 12:17:00 PM
There’s been a lot written about the way the Amazon Kindle will change how we read, and how we shop: how easy it makes impulse buying, (you’ve essentially got every book Amazon sells in your purse or your pocket, ready for preview or purchase whenever you want); how quickly it lets you jump from one book for another.
One thing I haven’t seen discussed yet is what Kindle doesn’t give you: namely, the author’s photo.
Last week, home sick, I read HAPPENS EVERY DAY: AN ALL-TOO-TRUE STORY by Isabel Gillies, the story of a young mother’s marriage falling apart. Probably you’ve seen it – they’re selling it at Starbucks. More importantly, probably you’ve seen Ms. Gillies, who was an actress with a recurring role on Law & Order before she chucked it all to follow her feckless husband to the hinterlands of Ohio, in the name of love.
Gillies is, in a word, gorgeous: a statuesque blue-eyed blond with killer bone structure. But I didn’t know that when I downloaded her memoir, and the Kindle didn’t provide me with either a book cover or an author photo.
In a weird way, the omission made the book a lot more suspenseful than it would have been if I’d had Ms. Gillies’ visage staring me in the face every time I glanced at the back flap. A happy ending would have been a foregone conclusion. Of course she was going to meet “the love of (her) life,” as she wrote on the very last page. Probably on the way back from the post office where she mailed in her manuscript! And she probably got proposed to twice on the way there!
Instead, I read without knowing what the author looked like…although, to be fair, I figured that if she was a working actress she probably did not have the kind of face and figure that would cause observers to run away, screaming…and Gillies notes, more than once, that she considers herself pretty, is considered pretty by others, and often slid by on her good looks.
But a picture is, as they say, worth a thousand words. Being told someone is a looker is not the same as having the evidence right there in your hand. And so I read, thumbing that “NEXT PAGE” button with the dread you feel watching a horror movie, when the pretty girl whose car breaks down hikes to the creepy mansion on the hill to ask for help, and decides to take her top off beforehand. No! I thought, upon learning that Gillies’ intended had ditched his first wife while she was pregnant. Don’t marry him! It’s not going to end well!
I was charmed by Gillies’ description of arranging wildflowers in Ball jars on the organic farm outside of Oberlin; engrossed as I read about the wallpaper she and her husband chose for their big, brick house, the sweet nicknames they used for one another; enchanted with descriptions of her morning routine and her afternoon tea and the tomato-and-gruyere tart she cooked. My heart was in my throat when the gamine brunette who would eventually steal her husband’s heart showed up on campus. When Gillies, clad in a puffy down parka that probably had Cheerios in its pockets, falls to her knees in front of her husband’s mistress to beg for her marriage, I was right there in the snow with her.
Would I have felt that level of identification, that empathy, that edge-of-my-seat, thrill if I’d known that the author probably hadn’t lacked for male attention since age twelve and wouldn’t be lacking for it long, even with two kids, in the wake of a broken marriage?
I’m not sure. I suspect the truth is that I would have looked at the picture more than once, and read the book rolling my eyes. Those charming descriptions of wildflowers and nicknames and tomato tarts and summers with her still-married parents in Maine would have sounded precious. The drama of the kneeling-in-the-snow scene would have read as melodrama. And the ending would have had me cynically shaking my head: babe lands boyfriend. Stop the presses!
So, in the end, HAPPENS EVERY DAY was a book that probably went down better electronically than it would have on paper. I'm not sure what this says about the Kindle, or about me, or what it means for the future of reading and writing if we are, in fact, moving toward an era where an author’s looks won’t matter because your e-reader won’t let you see them.
The other weirdly meta-note: at one point, Gillies inveigles her husband's mistress to accompany her to the movies. It's there, during the previews, that Gillies wonders aloud how a man could leave a wife and young children, and the mistress, who has a dismayingly Gallic attitude about such things, answers that, in fact, it happens every day. And the movie they see? Is "In Her Shoes."
No word on whether they liked it.
More soon on yesterday's EW photo shoot, why Maureen Dowd isn't Tweeting, and why toddlers are like drunks (and if you can't wait, I'm posting about all of this on Twitter -- @jenniferweiner -- and on Facebook).
Welcome to A Moment of Jen, author Jennifer Weiner's constantly-updated take on books, baby, and news of the world. Email me at jen (a) jenniferweiner.com.