First World Problems

So there’s this tag on twitter, #firstworldproblems, that I find amusing as a way to trivialize problems in one’s life that, to be fair, need a good dose of trivialization.

Examples: “I can’t decide whether to go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.”

“My iPad erased the game I was playing and now I need to start from the beginning”

“I have too many books out from the library on my Kindle and not enough time to read them all.”

These are problems that require a certain level of lifestyle/privilege/holy-cow-I-can-type-on-a-piece-of-glass-and-it-works in one’s life to exist in the first place. Reflecting on what having these kinds of problems means is far more fruitful than actually trying to solve them. (Which is why I’m sitting here and not actually going grocery shopping yet. Also, I haven’t made up my mind…)

I’d like to dwell, first, on the iPad and Kindle. They are cool. (I think one should measure the lives-up-to-it’s-potential-ness of a device by how many minutes elapse between first opening the box and first wanting to throw it across the room). The way in which they are cool, however, lies not in what they can do, but in how they can change the way I think about things.

For example, my basic conundrum with exercising (once I get past the “But the bed is comfortable and I am ‘le tired'”) is whether to do it outside or in the gym. Outside has all the advantages of fresh air and wind and sights, but inside means I don’t need to pay attention to the exercising and can do something else. It is almost impossible to get hit by a car because you were reading while biking if you are inside a gym on a stationary bike.

And yes, I like reading while I bike. Or run. Or sit in a chair. Or eat. Okay, this list would probably be shorter if I started listing the activities during which I would not pick up a book.

The problem with paper books is that they don’t stay open properly when you prop them up on a stationary bike or treadmill or elliptical. Paperbacks are the worst, because your options are either to hold the darn things open the entire time or break the spine every time you want to turn a page. Hardcovers are no bargain either.

But ebooks. Ahh, ebooks don’t need to be propped open. You just stick your ereader on the stand (conveniently covering the time display so that you aren’t counting the seconds until the end of the workout), adjust the letter size so that you can be as far back as you want while reading, and then all you need to do is tap the edge of the screen every so often so that the pages turn themselves.

Okay, yes, this thing also does immensely complicated mathematical calculations, can render a computer game that would have flummoxed a desktop 10 years ago and makes some of the most hilarious spelling suggestions I’ve ever seen. But the point, wherever it went, is that while I am often intellectually impressed by what technology can do, I am only really floored by it when I examine how it changes my daily life.

Another example – flying. No, the iPad does not actually let you fly (though I’ve heard the iPad 4 might add that functionality…). However, I have been going on flights that could be described as “long” for most of my life, which means two things. One is that the flight from LAX to JFK doesn’t seem too bad when compared to JFK to Ben Gurion. The other is that I can measure the march of technology by what I brought with me on those flights.

I don’t remember my first flights to Israel (Well, I was 2 for the first one), though I am pretty sure that there were the requisite snacks and coloring books and such and that I probably cried at some point and annoyed the rest of the cabin. My first actual memory of being on a flight to Israel (or memory of a memory, since memory retrieval is notoriously faulty and there’s no way to prove this actually happened, but I remember it, so there!) is of a completely dark plane, with all the occupants asleep except for me, because I am too engrossed in Susan Cooper’s “The Grey King” to put it down and try and sleep. My second memory, possibly from that trip, possibly from the subsequent one, is bothering my mother for 4 AA batteries because my Gameboy died.  (This was back when Gameboys were roughly the size and weight of a brick, slate gray and I owned three games – Marioland, Tetris and Pokemon Blue). I was serious enough about that last game that I actually gave up bringing one extra book with me so that I could fit the walkthrough into my knapsack.

Back in those days, if you wanted to have something with you on a flight, you had darn well better remember to bring it with you before you leave the house.

Fast forward to May, 2011. A good friend of mine is getting married in Israel and, as I had already finished my classes for the year, I decided to go. For the first time in the history of Liz Shayne flying anywhere, I only brought one book on the flight. One paperback book, that is. I might not even have brought that many, had I not needed something to read during take-off and landing. (Shabbat was not really a concern – the friend’s with whom I was staying has a library extensive enough to make me drool). What I also did, though, was fill up my iPad with seven books from the NYPL’s digital collection that I could return as I finished them and, if necessary, borrow someone’s WiFi and download some more if I needed. I had the Mary Poppin’s bag of libraries at my fingertips. The time between wanting to read a book and reading the first word was suddenly less than a minute long.

It has only gotten better since then. This most recent trip, I was sitting in Newark Liberty Airport (I still don’t know what the liberty is for) and sulking because I had not managed to finish the 600 page novel I had been reading over Shabbat and it needed to go back to the NYPL before I would be in New York again. I had about 400 pages of it left and I really wanted to know what happened. (I suppose it’s worth mentioning that I can be a total cheapskate about books in that I get very annoyed if I have bought a book and it turns out that I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. My bookshelves are mostly made up of books that I either liked so much on the first read that I went out and bought them so that I would never have to return them to the library or books by authors I knew well enough that I was sure I could risk my time and money on them. The reading experience they would provide would be “worth it”.) This was the third book in a trilogy and I had enjoyed the first two books so much that I was seriously considering rereading them (Book 1 was one of my top 10 reads of 2011), so if this wasn’t a book worth buying, I didn’t know what was. I took out my Kindle, turned on the 3G and bought the book from Amazon. I finished it about half an hour away from Denver and it was completely worth it.

Welcome to the future, the world where you never have to put down your book. I knew I would love it here.

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One response to “First World Problems

  1. Karin

    I had the no-books-on-holiday revelation for the first time last month; I was in England for two and a half weeks with not a single paperback book to my name. Admittedly, I borrowed one from my parents and was given one for Chanukah, so Shabbatot were sorted, but even so. And I had so much choice!

    Also, I have begun reading while brushing my teeth. My Kindle doesn’t care if it’s being propped up on the towel rack rather than held in my lap. Also while cooking, though this can be more risky; stirring is fine, but sometimes you do have to look at what you’re chopping…

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