Myrtle McBride sat in her rocking chair on the porch watching the children play in the front yard. She tried to move her old body to rock the new chair back and forth, but she couldn’t get it to budge. “Celia, can you get this gizmo to rock? Push the button or whatever.”
Little Celia looked up and said, “Sure, Grandma.” The first generation of grandchildren had called her Grandma, the next Great Grandma, but Great-Great Grandma proved too much of a mouthful for the little ones. “There’s no button. You just talk to it.” Celia changed the tone of her voice to speak to the machine. “Chair, rock, please. Gently.”
Myrtle jolted as the chair started to move. Celia turned back around and Myrtle watched her, trying to understand what she was doing. Celia had placed a flat disc on the floorboards and it projected an image into the air. Words and pictures floated in the image and they changed as Celia made tiny gestures.
“What are you doing?” Myrtle asked.
“Reading a book.”
“A book?” Myrtle said. “Honey, that’s not a book.”
“Sure it is, Grandma.” Celia lifted her hand and twisted her wrist and the image turned so that Myrtle could see it more clearly. But Myrtle couldn’t see anything clearly these days. Celia saw her straining and fanned her fingers out making the words grow larger.
Myrtle read a few sentences. She paused on a word she didn’t recognize and the definition and a picture popped up in the air beside it. The distraction annoyed Myrtle. She could have figured out what it meant and if she wanted the definition she would have asked for it. She didn’t like the machine tracking her eyes, or whatever it was doing, trying to anticipate what she wanted. Was it reading her thoughts? She didn’t have a brain implant and never would.
“Let me show you a real book,” Myrtle said. She slowly stood up, trying to take it easy on the actuators in her hips. They were over twenty years old and her son wanted to get replacements, but she wouldn’t endure anymore surgeries. He had babbled about the whole process being done by nano-somethings, but she didn’t bother listening after the first few nonsense words.
The front door slid out of the way and she hobbled inside, with Celia following. Myrtle looked up at the beautiful staircase, the pride of her old house. It had been made from rare, real wood and didn’t have one piece technology in it. The children couldn’t believe that it didn’t move or respond to voice commands. They ran up and down it all day.
But Myrtle couldn’t climb the stairs anymore and reluctantly shuffled to the lift. She pushed the button labeled ‘Attic’, the only button with legible words left. All the others had long since been worn away by the rubbing of countless fingers.
She braced herself on Celia’s shoulder as they ascended two floors and then came to a stop. The attic door had an actual doorknob and Celia reached out to touch it. Myrtle showed her how to grip it and turn. Celia giggled in surprise when the door opened.
The smell of dust and mold wafted out as Myrtle fumbled for the light switch while Celia repeated “Lights on, please,” over and over. Myrtle finally found the switch and Celia gasped at the sight. Myrtle couldn’t remember the last time she had been here. All the memories of a lifetime were stuffed haphazardly around the room.
Where had she put it?
Celia put her hands on everything, picking up items and asking what they were. She was fascinated by the simple dolls that didn’t respond to her instructions. Myrtle found an old trunk and called Celia over. She fumbled with the latch until it popped open and she pried up the lid with the creak of long unused hinges.
Myrtle gently lifted out memory after memory. Wedding albums, dresses, plaques. All the artifacts of a long life.
And then there it was.
She had read it a thousand times as a child. She had spent countless hours curled up in bed journeying to imaginary worlds. “Reading a great book should be a simple, beautiful experience,” Myrtle said. “With that thing you had, you weren’t experiencing the book. You need to touch it. To feel the weight in your hands. Read the words, with nothing else to distract you.”
She picked it up gently and ran her fingers over the edges and across the front. She put it to her nose and breathed in the old, familiar smell. Could Celia even understand something like this? Something that didn’t interact and anticipate your needs? Something so basic and simple? A relic from a forgotten time.
She said a silent prayer and against all hope she pushed the button on the bottom. Myrtle laughed like a young girl when the screen shown dimly and the words of the last book she had been reading so many years ago appeared on the screen. She had been in the middle of rereading Pride and Prejudice. Without even having to think about how it worked, her muscle memory took over and she swiped across the top of the screen and it closed the book and showed a list of all the books on the device.
She could never download new books. The primitive network that it connected to was long gone, but it held thousands and thousands of volumes. The device had more on it than she could read in what was left of her lifetime. She dug through the trunk and found the charger and adapter that allowed old wall plug devices to get power from the wireless grid.
This is how she would spend her remaining days, sitting on the porch, reading the great books. Just like her childhood. Hours and hours holding it in her hand. And then she looked at Celia.
No. Myrtle wouldn’t let the old ways fade away with her. She handed it to Celia, who took it gently, with wonder in her eyes. Myrtle showed her how to swipe her fingers across the smooth glass surface to scroll through the list of books. Celia picked a title and touched it. The book opened to chapter one and she began to read. When she reached the end of the page, she waited.
Myrtle smiled and showed her where to touch to turn the page. Now her great-great granddaughter could truly experience books.
The way they were meant to be read.