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If all of our cultural markers become digitized—if everyone starts reading books on Kindle and listening to music through the earbuds of an iPod—what happens to the camaraderie (or division) created by comparing our books to those of others? James Wolcott wants to know :

We’ve all had that moment. That dial tone that hums in your head after you glance across the train aisle or spot someone perched upon a park bench or peer into the window at Starbucks and, based on the cover of the book a stranger is reading, zings the hope that he or she must be a kindred spirit, a literary soulmate, because you too dig Mary Gaitskill down to the nasty bone. Or perhaps it’s Netherland being held like a hymnal, the acclaimed novel by Joseph O’Neill that you keep meaning to read and never will, and here it is, being read with such care by someone so cute. If only you could strike up a chat, the two of you might stroll off like French lovers thrown together by capricious fate, scampering to take cover from the christening rain. Romantic fantasy isn’t the only driver of curiosity—our inner snob is always clicking away, doing little status checks . . . .

Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices. As we divest ourselves of once familiar physical objects—digitize and dematerialize—we approach a Star Trek future in which everything can be accessed from the fourth dimension with a few clicks or terse audibles.

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