Grok article: “The Trouble With Kindle”, July 2011

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This is an article I wrote for Curtin University’s student magazine, Grok.

Things are looking bad for books. With REDgroup going bankrupt, leading to the closure of dozens of bookstores around Australia, it seems that the traditional book is plummeting towards obsolescence. Though the killing blow has yet to be dealt, it seems inevitable that all bookseller chains, independent bookshops and book exchanges must soon go the way of Angus & Robertson. The demise of the traditional book has been a long time coming, but the final nail in its papery coffin has to be the invention of electronic book readers. Most especially, Kindle.

Kindle is to reading, as David Tennant is to the Doctor Who franchise. Kindle took what ordinary books had been doing for ages, and did it BETTER. And even though there have been other e-readers since, Kindle is still the one that people remember. So what is the big whoop? People say, “Why not just read off your computer, it’s basically the same thing, right?” NO. The Kindle uses electronic ink, which means that it looks just like printed ink. I’m not a techie, I don’t know all the terminology. I just know it’s a magic page that can erase itself and become any page out of ANY BOOK EVER. (Provided Amazon’s online store carries that book.) It’s MAGIC.

Now, I am not the most up-to-date person, technologically. I was made aware of this by the expression on a Dick Smith employee’s face when I asked him where I could find the “cassette tape section”. (He was like, “Uh, maybe in 1992?”) Also, the other day I had to consult a younger friend on whether it is “cool” to refer to Facebook as “Facey-B” (side note: it is not). At the age of twenty-four, it seems I am already slipping into the grey irrelevance of middle age. But I have one redeeming feature that makes me seem hip and trendy: I own a Kindle. And, by god, I love it.

There, I said it: I LOVE MY KINDLE. I – a Penguin-Classics-tote-bag-carrying English Lit major – LOVE MY ELECTRONIC READING GADGET. But it is a love that is tinged with bitterness. Every time I curl up in bed with my shiny Kindle, I feel like I’m cheating on paperbacks. I worry that I am single-handedly closing down another struggling bookseller. Every time I download another Nora Roberts, a Borders angel cries.

I don’t want to hurt bookshops; I adore bookshops. No matter how much I love the efficiency of sitting at home, thinking “I really want to read that book by that guy” and then downloading it moments later – no matter how convenient that is, it doesn’t replace the experience of wandering through the stacks of a bookshop. It doesn’t replace that feeling of weighing a thick novel in your hand, and thinking “I am going to devour all 1200 pages of this mofo, and it is going to be amazing”. Or cracking the spine of a new book. People didn’t line up to download the new Harry Potter. They wanted something they could touch, hold, maybe even cuddle at night (what?).

However, Kindle has an advantage that I did not anticipate: when you’re reading from a Kindle, no one can tell what you’re reading. You could sit on the train perusing some trash – like Justin Bieber’s unofficial biography, or amateur romance novels – without having to hide the cover behind your knees. Now I can sit in public and read 100% Bieber without a trace of self-consciousness. And if anybody asks what I’m reading, I can just flick over to James Joyce and be all smug and literary.

But herein lies my biggest problem with e-books: they make it harder to show off. If no one can see what you’re reading, it means they also can’t be impressed by how erudite and charmingly bookish you are. I mean, sure, sometimes I read books that have shirtless men on the cover, but I also read obscure Gothic novels from the nineteenth century. I’ve got literary cred, yo. But the anonymity of my Kindle effectively erases the possibility of having a “meet cute” with an attractive stranger in a cafe who stops to exclaim that he, too, is a fan of Hemingway. Nope, he’s going to walk right on by the girl with the Kindle, never suspecting that we were so perfect for each other. Instead, flaunting my Kindle in a cafe would probably only attract Mac zealots who want to evangelise about the iPad 2. My voracious reading habits had only one social advantage, and that was appearing intellectually superior to other people. With my Kindle, I haven’t even that. (At least this means I no longer have to read Murakami or Vonnegut – because what’s the point if no one sees you reading them?)

My Kindle is no good for showing off my reading prowess, but I love it all the same. I know I’m hurting books, but I can’t seem to stop myself. I am seeing my Kindle almost every night, and spending less and less time with my papery friends. Every now and again I go to a bookstore and buy a stack of books, in a fit of guilt. I tell books they’re the only ones for me; while I strayed, my heart was always theirs. But there, at the bottom of my tote bag, lies the Kindle …

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Pelican article: “Man Gives Birth?” 2009

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*This article I wrote about gender reassignments was published in Pelican magazine, August 2009 – but not a whole lot has changed since then, so here it is again.

About a month ago, a man named Thomas Beatie (dubbed ‘the Pregnant Man’ by the media) gave birth to his baby daughter in the USA. This story sparked a highly intriguing headline: ‘Man Gives Birth’. Bad news for women – giving birth was the one thing we could claim over the male gender. Men get higher salaries, the Presidential candidacy, and standing up while they pee – and now, apparently, they can get pregnant as well. But … is Thomas Beatie really a man? He was born a woman, then went through a gender reassignment and had his gender legally changed to male. However, he kept his female reproductive organs. So, at least in a biological sense, it was a female giving birth. Yet Beatie is legally a man. Confused much?

In an article that Beatie wrote for an American newspaper, he repeatedly affirmed that throughout the pregnancy his ‘gender identity as male [was] constant’. I find it interesting that a transgender person such as Beatie can so emphatically claim a fixed gender identity. What defines the male gender? Beatie has had his female breasts removed, and has taken testosterone to grow facial hair, but kept his female reproductive organs. So does this mean that every woman of flat chest and hairy upper lip is actually teetering on the edge of the male gender? Or, that any man who cannot grow a full beard is not a man? (I’m sure there are numerous Facebook groups with opinions on that.) Gender is not governed by indisputable boundaries, not for anyone, and the issue of gender identity can become confusing when you are trying to shoehorn each unique individual into one of two categories. Philosopher Judith Butler stated that the body cannot serve as a foundation for gender definition; there are simply too many different kinds of bodies for us to categorize all of them into ‘male’ or ‘female’. When you consider gender as a fluid concept, it becomes easier to accept a wider range of gender identities.

In Oregon, where Thomas Beatie lives, he is legally recognised as a man. Despite this, he reportedly still has trouble convincing some of his neighbours to recognise this. However, the media coverage of the Beatie story has consistently referred to him in male pronouns. Since the story came to the media’s attention, even the most sceptical headlines said ‘Man Claims To Be Pregnant,’ instead of ‘Pregnant Woman Claims To Be A Man’. Looking closer to home, how does our own state treat its transgender community? If Thomas Beatie were a Western Australian and had delivered his baby in this state, would the papers have announced ‘Man Gives Birth’, or would WA have denied Beatie’s status as a man? It is true that in the last decade WA has radically improved its legislation with regards to the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. However, many of WA’s transgender residents are still stranded in legal limbo. It all comes down to the question of defining gender, at least in terms of the law. Under the Gender Reassignment Act 2000, a person hoping to apply for a recognition of gender change must have taken on the ‘characteristics’ of their adopted gender. The Act defines gender characteristics as ‘the physical characteristics by virtue of which a person is identified as male or female.’ Whether this extends to include such physical traits as muscle size or hair length is not specified; in fact, the Act’s definitions are extremely vague. At one point in Australian history, it was commonly considered a male characteristic to wear trousers. That social viewpoint has clearly changed; what else could change? Who decides which characteristics belong to each gender?

In 2006, New York City proposed a new rule, to allow people to legally change their gender without medical alteration or surgery. The intent of the new legislation was to let people decide for themselves which gender they are. In WA, however, in order to legally change your gender, you must have undergone ‘a medical or surgical procedure … to alter the genitals and other gender characteristics of a person.’ Gender reassignment procedures can be extremely expensive and painful, and are not within everyone’s means. Some transgender people don’t view surgical alterations as necessary. Is gender, therefore, a personal choice or governed by our physiology? If it were the latter, where would that leave Thomas Beatie?

So far, in this article, I have used the word ‘gender’ twenty-four times. Often, when you have used a word so often within a short space of time, it begins to lose its meaning. Perhaps gender is beginning to lose its meaning and its importance – after all, why are we so concerned with gender? In making it difficult for people to change their gender, what is our society so jealously guarding? For many people, an ideal world would consist of men and women having equal opportunities and an end to gender discrimination. For decades, activist groups have been fighting for this very cause. In practicality, gender discrimination still occurs in Australia. For example, women in the army or navy are not permitted to fight in direct combat, on the basis that their physiology is inherently weaker. Where do transgender people fit into this? Could a man who was born a woman fight in combat?

If everyone was considered equal regardless of their gender, it wouldn’t matter which gender we claimed. Thomas Beatie is a man who wanted to have a baby, so he did. As Beatie said himself, ‘Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.’ While Beatie’s pregnancy may not quite be a biology-defying miracle (some women may have been thinking, ‘Damn, so I can’t get my man to go through labour for me, after all’), his story’s worldwide exposure has shown that our society’s view on gender is gradually broadening. And that, in itself, is a miracle.