Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Maybe Oprah Isn't So Bad After All

I am not a fan of Oprah. I think she is given to do good things, but there's always this sense that at the center of it lies her own enormous ego pulling the strings. I once watched a prime time special in which she was the driving force for building a school in Africa. It was an incredibly magnanimous thing to do, but at the same time you would think from the presentation that she built the school brick-by-brick with her own hands. It was ridiculous.

Having once spent about ten months as the assistant manager of a Waldenbooks, I've never pretended to understand why the opinions of Oprah hold so much sway over so many. It's been more than ten years, but I still remember well what her endorsement can mean to a book's sales.

As truly bizarre as it is, there are times when her ability to hypnotize people en mass is useful. Such was the case a week ago when I drew my wife's attention after grunting in surprise -as I often do- while reading something interesting from my blogroll. I'm convinced there's some kind of irony in the notion that I grunt like a Neanderthal while using the kind of technology that my not-so-distant ancestors would regard as magical works of the devil or at least one of his high-ranking lieutenants. 

"What is it?" my wife asked.

I didn't respond right away. I rarely do in these circumstances. I have found something online that I regard as cool. Angie, I'm sure, will not. It always takes a second for me to process just what tone is required to make clear that I am interested in this pricey piece of unnecessary technology, but have no intention of spending our money on it.

"Oh, it's just that there's a $50 coupon code for the Kindle-"

Angie, much to my surprise, is suddenly very interested and, before I can finish, asks if that's the thing the lets you read electronic books. She, of course, heard about it while watching Oprah. Now, I'm hesitant to portray Angie as one of Oprah's mindless army of automatons as she most definitely is not. She just enjoys watching the show from time to time and the fact that the Kindle got a ringing endorsement from the big O (so to speak), immediately transforms this gadget from a geeky indulgence to something worthy of closer scrutiny. I suddenly find myself treading unfamiliar terrain. I am cautious. I respond that it is, but even with the coupon it's still too pricey. I figure that's the end of it. But from her pitch selection Angie delivers a nasty 12-6 curveball: She asks if it's something we would both use.

My senses heighten. Surely, this is a trap. My wife has endured my purchases of some relatively pricey hardware over the years, but rarely with any enthusiasm. There's a sense that while she may not get it, she knows that she married someone who is compelled to own a 360, a PS3, and a relatively modern PC. That I cannot tolerate the presence of a TV in our home that doesn't support HD. My gadget lust, restrained though it usually is, is something she tolerates, but rarely -if ever- encourages.

"Yeah, I think so. But still, the money," I say.

She then asks if it's something we could take with us on a vacation we're taking after Thanksgiving, while also noting that Christmas is coming and maybe it would be a good gift to both of us.

Any time I want to spend a significant amount of money on something I require an excuse to justify it to myself; a reason that it's okay to throw money at something we don't really need. It doesn't have to be a good excuse, it just has to sound reasonable. When I lobbied for our projector we had a six-month old in the house and, with no family in the area, were unable to go out to the movies anymore. So, we had to bring the movies to us. It was, in the parlance of Val Kilmer in Real Genius, "a moral imperative."

Suddenly the prospect of blowing $300 on Kindle doesn't seem so extreme. It's a Christmas gift! And it's for both of us! Hell, that's just $150 a piece, not to mention that it relieves us both of the burden of finding a "big" gift later on! Given all that, how could we'd not get one? It'd be stupid not to!

This is the way my mind works. I admit such a thought process has costly pitfalls from time to time, but sometimes it works out well. As I hold this new, little technological wonder in my hands -a newly purchased John Adams biography by David McCullough printed on its screen- I'm reminded that this is one of those times; that sometimes a needless expense is still a worthwhile expense. I've only had it for a day, but I'm in love with this gadget. The old world of print and the new world of electrons have birthed a child and it's the best of both. Given the choice, I'm not sure I'll ever settle for the printed version of a book again.