Jennifer Boyle

Kindling conversation

Single? Consider an e-book. You just might fall in love.

I’m on the number 2 train, traveling home from work, when it happens again: “Hey, what’s that you’re reading? ” I look up at a rumpled, 40-something man wearing stylishly nerdy horn rims, midway through the NY Times crossword. This was way back in 2008, when e-books were still a relative novelty, which is why this guy is staring down at my Kindle, half-suspiciously. Soon, we’re deep in conversation, about books, authors and the fate of the publishing industry until I arrive at my stop—at 96th Street—surprised by my sudden arrival. I wave goodbye and, Kindle in hand, make my way to my neighborhood tapas bar. The bartender immediately notices what I’m carrying and says: “Is that one of those… things? Do you like it?” Nearly simultaneously, the cute, red-haired manager of the place peeks over my shoulder and says, semi-facetiously (though I sense a touch of envy in his voice): “Oh, you’re one of those hip people who use an e-book?” I reach for my glass of Rioja, and catch the eye of a grizzled yet still sexy man across the bar. He motions to my Kindle, then signals. Thumbs up? Or thumbs down?

I’ve never gotten this much attention from men I don’t know. Not that anyone would ever call me shy. Indeed, I have a knack for lulling friends and acquaintances into sharing the most intimate details of their life, whether an impending divorce or a bedroom fetish. I also chat easily with women, and the husbands of women friends (these men are off limits, so there’s no risk involved). But I’ve never excelled at striking up conversation with strangers of the opposite sex or even worked up the nerve to be the first to smile at a fellow I don’t know. Instead, I’ll stand or sit uncomfortably, buried in a paperback (if I’m at a bar), or hovering dangerously close to the appetizers table at a party, eating and drinking too much until it’s time to call it a night. Needless to say, getting dates on the fly has never been my forte. Indeed, several years ago, fresh from a bad breakup and yearning for a fling with a well-coiffed Italian, I took a three-month sabbatical in Rome to edit a book about sex, of all things. The only men I spoke with during my stay were taxi drivers, waiters and those working behind counters, slicing prosciutto or serving pizza. No cute-meets-over-cappuccino for me.

Then came the Kindle. I’ll confess, when my boyfriend presented me with the rectangular box for my birthday (for the record, he and I met on the porch of our favorite inn, and he spoke to me first), I was secretly panicked when I discovered its contents. “I know how much you love to read,” he said, looking pleased with his ingenuity. “Now, you’ll be able to have as many books with you as you want.”

“But I don’t want a Kindle,” I thought, a forced smile on my face as I tentatively fingered the admittedly cute device. Back home, I called a few friends to consult: “Should I tell him that it isn’t for me or pretend I love it, then stick it in a drawer?”

“Tell him the truth,” several counseled, but that didn’t seem quite right; it felt ungrateful and potentially hurtful. So I called my wise younger sister, who said, in her pragmatic way, “Why don’t you try it? You might like it.” I tried it. She was wrong, for once. I didn’t merely like it. I loved it in a this-has-transformed-my-life-and-I-can’t-shut-up-about-it way. I’m an instant gratification kind of girl, and my Kindle is my crack: If I hear about a book that piques my interest, I immediately download 30 free pages. If I’m drawn in, I buy it just like that, for less than the price of the average NYC martini.

Not that the machine didn’t take some getting used to. As a reader, I’m always itching to know what happens on the next page before I’ve quite finished the last (instant gratification). So, not surprisingly, I have a habit of flipping before I’ve fully absorbed what’s in front of me (necessitating a quick reverse flip).

And yes, I miss the smell and feel of books, the pleasure that comes from turning pages, inhaling ink and scanning fonts. Without the cover art and the sharp crack of a new binding, I find it tougher to distinguish one book from another. Instead of a tangible object on my night table, an embossed title etched into my brain, I get words on a screen, each blending seamlessly into the next, which leads to each volume blending seamlessly into the next. Once I’ve downloaded my newest digital darling, I’ve pretty much forgotten the last, the details vanishing into the ether.

Yet none of this outweighs the advantages. As for missing the feeling of books, the Kindle has a nifty heft of its own, yet is still light in my hands. And I can take it with me—on the subway or to bars where, while waiting for a tardy friend, I’d otherwise be squirming in self-conscious discomfort, pretending to check my phone.

Of course, I could carry around a book, too, but the thing no one tells you about the Kindle is this: Unlike a quotidian paperback, the Kindle is a man-magnet, a sure-fire conversation starter that works better than a cute puppy on a leash. I call it the “unlooked for Kindle effect,” because when I’m armed with my little gadget, I’m magically capable of attracting men with ease. In a strange way, my Kindle has kindled my confidence. Instead of feeling vulnerable and undesirable, I expectantly wait for the next man to interrupt my reading, and a perfectly natural discussion to ensue.

But that’s as far as the exchange goes. Because I’m still happily coupled up with the guy who gave me my Kindle in the first place, the one who transformed me from confirmed Luddite to e-book evangelist, a man who perhaps knows me better than I know myself. In fact, I married him. But to my single sisters, or anyone who longs for connection in a sometimes impersonal world, I say this: Consider the Kindle. You just might fall in love.