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Nose In A Book? Consider The Hygienic Advantages Of The E-Reader

Hinda Mandell: "Someone else’s booger drove my mother to buy a Kindle."  (LollyKnit/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Hinda Mandell: "Someone else’s booger drove my mother to buy a Kindle." (LollyKnit/flickr)

There is no silver lining when coming across someone else’s booger inside a book.

Books carry the living traces of the people who read them, who turn their pages in bed, at a café and on an airplane. The borrowed book is like a zoo of other people’s DNA. The genetic material is embedded in its pages — the stray hair, the bit of dried mucus, the stain we hope is coffee. I’m reminded of this in our era of hyper-vigilance against, and fear of, contagion.

The borrowed book is like a zoo of other people’s DNA. The genetic material is embedded in its pages -- the stray hair, the bit of dried mucus, the stain we hope is coffee.

I was also reminded of this when my mother, a lifelong supporter of our public library system, broke down and purchased an e-reader.

She called with the news. “For weeks, I’ve been on the library’s waiting list for this book, that detective mystery in Ireland, and finally it’s my turn, and I pick up the book from the library. I start reading it, and there’s this huge booger!”

Someone else’s booger drove my mother to buy a Kindle.

There’s something exceptionally clean about the reading experience on a tablet device, which belongs to us alone and is rarely shared, where data is downloaded and there are no gross-out surprises when flipping pages, because there are no real pages to flip.

Even the words “streaming” and “cloud” sound so idyllic, pure and cleansing, that it makes me want to rest in a field of daisies and stare skyward, until, of course, I imagine the itch of grass and bug bites.

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I’m as guilty as the next avid reader in contributing to the genetic material cornucopia of borrowed books. A few weeks ago, while home sick with an unyielding head cold, I pulled down a few library books from the shelf in the hope of catching up on my research reading. Maybe it’s bad etiquette to read a library book when struggling through coughing and sneezing fits. But I did it, assuming that the books would remain in my possession for a couple of weeks, a kind of biblio-quarantine. All of a sudden, Aahchooooooo! The force of the sneeze was Herculean, the emission eyebrow-raising. There it landed on page 43. I quickly wiped the page, but a patch of moistness remained. Will it stain? I wondered, pondering a book’s DNA chain that now included me.

I was still mulling books and genetic material when I was at the gym, seated on a stationary bike, one person in a line of six — our legs pumping up and down. Each of us was reading. I gripped my Kindle and noticed that a fellow two bikes down held a book. Its telltale Mylar cover told me it was a library book. I watched as he sweat, dripped and turned the pages with a moist hand. Ick. This judgment from the woman who horked a goober onto a library book just days before.

There’s something exceptionally clean about the reading experience on a tablet device...where data is downloaded and there are no gross-out surprises when flipping pages, because there are no real pages to flip.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas describes dirt and uncleanliness as “matter out of place.” Her definition of dirt represents a precise way to categorize the things that make us go “eww.” Boogers belong in tissues, not in books. So when we come across one embedded in a book, tacked to a page by one reader, uninvited by the next, it’s dirt, because it doesn’t belong there. The upside of an unshared e-reader is that one rarely encounters such “matter out of place,” unless it’s one’s own, and that’s different.

This makes me wonder if the makers of e-readers, in advance of the holiday shopping season, have considered marketing the “hygienic” advantages of e-readers, especially as sales of the devices have reportedly declined in recent years.

To the bookworms on your list, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a booger-free reading experience. And mini packs of Kleenex make great stocking stuffers.

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Hinda Mandell Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Hinda Mandell, Ph.D., a Boston native, teaches in the Department of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology.

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