Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ahead of the tech curve in San Miguel

On Thursday Newsweek announced that as of the end of the year it will not longer publish a print edition--the one some readers regard as a "real magazine" that you can flip through nervously while waiting at the dentist's office--in favor of a series of electronic blips known as a "digital edition."

San Miguel is hardly a Mexican Silicon Valley, or even a Silicon Ditch, but the realities of geographical isolation and the limitations of transportation and mail delivery have unwittingly pushed expats here into the age of digital reading far ahead of our contemporaries in the U.S. If you live here and want to keep up with current events and the latest best sellers, the web is the most direct, and sometimes the only route there.

Several local entrepreneurs have tried to set up daily delivery of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but as Mexicans would say, ni modo--no way. The last guy who offered to do that asked for the money in advance, kept the cash and none of the customers ever saw an inch of newsprint.

If I'm in Mexico City on a weekend sometimes I indulge on the guilty pleasure of the Sunday edition of the Times but it costs approximately fifteen dollars, and more often than not it never reaches the newsstand at the hotel where we stay.

Magazines, real ink-on-paper editions, reach San Miguel via a private mail courier though often two or three weeks after publication. By the time I got to see the New Yorker cover about the first presidential debate, the one with a cartoon of Romney debating an empty chair, the second debate had already taken place. Magazine readers in San Miguel have to be patient. Either that or fire up their iPads or Kindles.

Books fall into the same trap. You order them from Amazon.com, which may deliver them promptly to the courier station in Laredo, but then they get waylaid in the swamp of Mexican customs for three weeks or more, plus you have to pay courier charges in addition to shipping and handling in the U.S.

Business is slow at the Barnes and Noble on Chicago's Near North Side.
I ordered a book about the Civil War on September 21 and it still hasn't arrived. If I had downloaded it to my Kindle, I would have been to Gettysburg by now.

Except that digital editions may be quick and efficient but any more I resent having to read books, magazines and newspapers on a small screen, on which important elements such as photographs, cartoons and graphics are reduced to tiny, ephemeral fractions of themselves.

Even if I've already read the New Yorker application on my Kindle, I still relish going through the real printed edition, dated as it may be, to check the cartoons and full-page photos, printed on real paper, while sitting on an old La-Z-Boy we brought down from Chicago.

As for books, maps of Civil War battles and photos of Robert E. Lee probably will look far more imposing in the book I ordered--if it ever gets here--than even on my high-definition Kindle.

I doubt the New Yorker will abandon its print edition but you never know. Last time we were in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune in the news boxes was barely recognizable: The paper had shrunk from a broadsheet to a mini version that was actually smaller than what used to be called a tabloid.

Bookstores, where you could peruse and fondle actual books before buying them,  also had nearly vanished. All Borders bookstores were gone and there was only one Barnes and Noble shop left on the Near North Side of Chicago. It looked like it was breathing its last.

iPads, iPhones and Kindles seem to have pushed printed material out of the way. Chicago buses have become surreal conveyances filled with self-absorbed zombies fondling their devices, checking their e-mails or rearranging their apps on the way to work. Where there used to be conversation now all you hear are the clicks of electronic devices or stray bits of music escaping from the iPod of the person next to you.

Like it or not, in San Miguel we're keeping up with the digital age. An English-language bookstore in town called El Tecolote (The Owl) which carried a fair selection of art books and best sellers shut down about year ago, the victim of a decline in American tourism and high prices. The store charged full cover prices plus a surcharge for delivery into Mexico, which made a coffee table book almost as pricey as a medieval manuscript.

One skill I still need to master, though, is texting on my cheapo cell phone. A sign at a bus stop on Chicago's North Avenue advised impatient customers to call a transit authority phone and type in the code for the particular location in order to get an estimate of how long it would take for the bus to arrive.

I fumbled and fumbled with the tiny buttons on the phone and I'll be damned if by the time I was ready to hit "send" the bus wasn't already there.

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