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May 7, 2009

Adam Gopnik discovers the perfect book light (with apologies to Samuel Johnson)


In a wonderfully discursive essay entitled "The Fifth Blade: On Razors, Songbirds, and Starfish," appearing in the current (May 11, 2009) New Yorker (it's styled "The Innovators Issue"), Gopnik ruminates about why it is that Gillette keeps adding blades, why frivolity — not necessity — is the real mother of invention, and why relaxed selection, as opposed to survival of the fittest, may be the driving force behind ultimately beneficial mutations.

But all of a sudden, out of seemingly nowhere, appears the following, toward the end of his piece, as he describes his vexation with book lights for reading in bed at night:


I have tried them all, without much success. The business of shining a small bright light on a printed page in such a way that it does not also shine into the eyes of a nearby sleeping person is fiendishly difficult — so difficult that it produces a proliferation of failed solutions .... They look like the alien technology in "Independence Day," some mixture of long-necked flexibility and creepy extendibility — they look like aliens themselves, for that matter, long and segmented and misshapen and repellant, with short, sharp heads that shine. Some hang around your neck, some sit on your stomach; some clip onto the edge of the book, where they shake and waver, and some bend around the book's binding to shine creepily on the pages. None of them quite do the trick. Some are too narrow, some too bright, most are too fragile, and all too short-lived; you have to change their little lithium batteries every few weeks, and you can never find the right kind to replace them with. Failure, it seems, generates variety, too, but it is the variety of futility, the small changes made in a lost cause, like G.M. fiddling with the metalwork on the grilles of its cars. The difference between the relaxed and the genial and the despairing and the fretful was smaller than I'd realized. It takes the eye of God to see, in the acts of man, which are the children of delight and which the dead ends of despair.

Then, the other night, shaking and grumbling, trying to find a working nightlight, I stumbled on a line from Dr. Johnson. No one who worries in the middle of the night, he says, should stay up worrying; the thing to do is light the light by your bed at once, and read. Visualizing the thing as the Doctor might have done it, I went into the dining room, snatched a candle from the closet, and took it to bed.

It does all the work a reading light can: it casts a gentle, even glow on the page; it doesn't need to be adjusted on the binding as you turn the pages, and your spouse goes right on sleeping in its amber twilight. And when you reading is over, the chapter finished, there are no clicks, no sudden darkness, just a light blown out with a breath.

The solution had been there all along. The ideal technology was very old, and the proliferation of alternatives was not Darwinian but Freudian, a set of alibis and excuses designed to repress the old and primal truth. Whatever the West Coast evolutionists might tell us, abundance obscures the possibility of old elegant solutions even as it propagates new and varied ones.


I could not agree more.

May 7, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Here's my solution -- been using it for four years now and it's the best thing I've ever come up with (I've got closets full of rejected book light contraptions, too):

I got a Brinkmann 3 watt LED flashlight -- it has plenty of reading light (for me, anyway) and it's nice & small and lightweight; doesn't use exotic batteries, just 3 AAA -- and I use a rubber band to fasten a 3-ply Kleenex over the bulb end (duh) to diffuse the light so it's not so harsh on the page, then I wrap some foam rubber (also secured w/ rubber bands) around the handle so that it will prop securely and "grab" on to the pillow, or wherever I want it on the bed. That way, I have nothing cumbersome attached to the book or to my head, and I can prop the flashlight so it points wherever my book is and it stays put. Works for me!

Posted by: Flautist | May 8, 2009 1:32:07 AM

I was going to comment on the danger of candles for reading and then I saw the previous comment. In excited anticipation I googled flame-less candles only to discover that they were nothing more than battery operated LED light gizmos. The disappointment I feel will still be lingering when I hit the sack tonight.

Posted by: Mark | May 7, 2009 11:49:23 PM

I would offer the caveat to this that some folks more likely to fall asleep with the book open on their lap should get those new flame-less candles. Safer, yanno?

Posted by: Randee | May 7, 2009 4:37:57 PM

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