Reading in the Digital Age

At the end of every term for at least the last half-dozen years, I’ve had to take a week (or two—the task probably isn’t done by the end of a single week) and re-teach myself how to read.  I start with a novel: something with prose I want to savor, but nothing too twisting or too stylistically pyrotechnic.  So neither Henry James nor Thomas Pynchon.  Not a collection of short stories, but a novel, something sustained, but only up to about 300 pages.  This is the training-wheels book, after all.  You don’t want to read War and Peace until you know how to read War and Peace.  It needs to be fiction because I need to be able to convince myself to go slowly and savor every word—that every word is (or should be) worth savoring.

The irony in this is, of course, that this material is not fundamentally different from what I read during the terms from which I need time to recover.  There’s poetry, of course, during those terms—during the recovery period, I don’t let myself pretend to “read” poetry until I know I can again—and non-fiction.  Plenty of non-fiction.  Dear God, the piles and piles of critical articles!  When my bookshelves finally give way and collapse, it’ll be the damned photocopies that do it.  But reading during the term, even in the humanities, is reading as work: reading for volume, reading for speed, reading to find what’s important, reading to find whether it’s important, reading on a deadline.  Everything that I’ve learned the hard way about reading has to go out the window.  Everything that I’ve tried to convince my handful of students about reading has to go out the window.  And then I get to re-learn it, in a crash course, during breaks.

Academic reading, I’ve come to realize, has much in common with the reading I do each morning when I dig through my Google Reader feed.  There’s so much there—I’m always, always behind—and I have to go fast and tell with a glance or a few sentences whether I want to keep reading.  The sites I know I want to read (like this one) always languish as the starred, “Mark as Unread” items until I can work up the time and energy.  Once you start reading to skim, it’s hard to shift gears.  I read online articles like I read critical articles during term paper season—or maybe it’s the other way around?—except I can’t hold a pen or pencil up to my laptop’s screen and force myself to slow down and go word-by-word, clause-by-clause until I’m capable of retaining some small bit of it.

Just about everything that Nicholas Carr has written about the perils of digital reading, that is, has been true for my in-term academic reading.  I don’t, however, think this is caused by my being a child of the digital era.  (I suppose I’m called a “Millenial.”)  I know how to read, and can—when I have the time, when the glut of human writing doesn’t seem to bear down on me, every word clamoring at once for my attention.

What’s the similarity between the glow of my Google Reader feed and the piles of library books—printed, of course—that slowly rise into a kind of protective barricade around my desk over the last two months of each semester?  It isn’t format, or prose style (there’s good and bad in both), or length, or color displays or layout or the newest site-redesign: just, from what I can tell, that there is so much left to read, and to be read on deadline, whether of the need to write, or the need to read while the ephemeral blog-post is still relevant.

To read a novel, or a poem, I need to slip out of this pressure and into a kind of atemporal idyll—you know, what George Will praises baseball, at its best, for creating.  They turn the clock off and replace it with one of their own.

Careful reading, patient reading, pleasurable reading all seem to demand that I let what I read determine the way time seems to pass.

This is what I lose when I try to read too much online, or too much for work.  It’s hard, when everything calls to you, to give yourself over to the pleasures of whatever you hold in your hands right now.  I can read collections of stories or essays without re-training myself: they make less of a demand on me, in terms of time; if the novel was, as Philip Roth now goes about insisting, the form of an era that passed right around the advent of the internet, then perhaps we’re entering the age of the collection.

I don’t mean this as a complaint, or even a lament.  Academic work, even as an undergraduate, has been at least as bad for my ability to truly read as has the internet.  (It’s probably been worse.)  This is the era of the glut of information, if nothing else—and learning how to navigate that glut to find what’s worthwhile is a skill that, frankly, may become a new sine qua non of reading, the newest component of even a middle-brow taste.

It’s just that sometimes, I like to sit around with only a book, and forget the whole wide world and all its clamor and problems, and forget myself, even, and read.

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27 thoughts on “Reading in the Digital Age

  1. I hate to say it, but I find myself much more mentally balanced and happy when I’m reading plenty of novels and poems, which tends to happen most when I’m located in places without online connections.

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  2. I still have not made the plunge into experimenting with an e-reader. I am one of those defiant souls who is either too hipster, too ludditte, or both who likes reading on binded paper.

    When it comes to law-stuff, I usually end up printing a lot of stuff because it is easier for me to make notes and understand with a physical copy.

    This is sort of off-topic but I am always surprised by people who do not read for pleasure during the academic year. The best piece of advice I ever received was from my undergrad adviser and that was to do at least 45 minutes of pleasure reading a day. I was given this piece of advice during my junior year (in 2000-2001) and have largely kept with it since. It improved my grades in undergrad and I also think kept me sane during grad school and law school and kept my grades good in those degrees as well. And I had the same problem of too much academic reading as well.

    A lot of my fellow classmates especially in law school told me that they felt “guilty” about during pleasure reading during the semester. They would say that “If I can read a book, I should be reading for class”. And yet they found time to keep up with TV. I really never understood why TV was acceptable recreation but reading a non-school related book was guilt inducing.

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    • The problem, for me, isn’t so much that I don’t want, or try, to read for pleasure during the academic year — it’s that this reading tends to feel like work. Primarily because I have trouble switching back to a non-work-reading mode. If I can get myself to read without holding a pencil, I’ll be fine. But most of the time, it’s really difficult to do this.

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      • In grad school, I took the bus to and from campus, so I always had a “bus book,” a book that I only read on the bus, and that I didn’t need to take notes on or write in the margins. Ninety-percent were novels or short story collections. I took the 60-80 minutes of my daily commute to read that novel, and that was it. It was always really, really refreshing. If someone called me on my cell while I was on the bus, they usually got an earful. It was the only way I could read without, as you say, feeling like it was work, and it actually made it easier for me to do non-work reading when I wasn’t on the bus.

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        • My solution during law school was to keep all my work at school and just stay in the library until finished.

          This kept my apartment as a largely school-work free zone.

          I will add that my apartment was a very easy walk to school.

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    • I still have not made the plunge into experimenting with an e-reader. I am one of those defiant souls who is either too hipster, too ludditte, or both who likes reading on binded paper.

      The technology isn’t really there yet. E-readers are convenient, and beat the hell out of putting three books in the luggage, but the contrast and screen size still needs to improve. I think it will get there, but combined with the necessary price point to be a truly mass-market product, the problem is harder than people thought.

      My real problem with my e-reader is that it tempts me into illegal activities. A small bit of poking about and you discover that there’s an enormous amount of converted print out on the bittorrent networks, almost all of it infringing on copyrights. Part of me rationalizes some of the downloads as “It’s out of print; my library network doesn’t have a copy; and I’m not willing to pay $25 for a beat-up used paperback.” For more recent fiction, particularly fiction of interest to geeks, it’s pretty easy to find a cracked copy of the e-book. TTBOMK, all of the encryption schemes have been broken now. I’m in the early stages of building a camera-based scanner and the software chain so that I can convert some of the few thousand books stuffed into my house (flipping through the pages is a nice mindless activity to do while the football game is on).

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      • +1 on that last paragraph.

        I think the technology is right about where it needs to be in terms of readability.

        What I’m really waiting on is for the technological possibilities to be more fully exploited. Right now it’s mostly ebooks that are converted from books. There’s no reason for this to be the case.

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        • A friend of mine, several years further along in his program than I am in mine, has a nifty program on his iPad that lets him organize/read/keep all of the PDFs he’ll ever need there/on some type of hard drive that the iPad can access. (As you can tell, I understand perfectly how these things work…) When I reach my breaking point and accede to some type of tablety e-reader thingamajib, it will be because of things like this. Physical books I probably won’t really ever give up on (though I find myself thinking that there are plenty of recent books — typically non-fiction types — that I wouldn’t want to pay $25 for, but that I’d totally pay $9 for).

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        • Right now it’s mostly ebooks that are converted from books. There’s no reason for this to be the case.

          This reminded me of an this reviewAmazon review I read recently, but someone who apparently knows that Kindle editions are converted from books, and expects some editorial mistakes to result. I found that review incredibly amusing for some reason. Actually, now that I think about it, it must be a joke.

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        • I think the technology is right about where it needs to be in terms of readability.

          I have to disagree, but some of that is because of what I’m looking for. I want to be able to read everything on a single device. Technical journal articles with large graphics or heavy math require a larger display — say 10″ by 8″ actual plus the surrounding bezel. Flip it sideways to get two pages of a novel. Contrast also needs to improve if the display is reflective — my (admittedly not current tech) e-reader isn’t a match for even cheap paper using the small lamp over my bed.

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          • Ahh, gotcha. Yeah, the limitations in non-basic-text was one of the reasons I got my tablet. I’d rather get color and better graphics than use the e-ink. I do think the e-ink is pretty dang readable for mobi files. However! It is a big of a struggle for PDFs with serif fonts.

            I also agree with your 9:22 comment. Pricing is a problem.

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      • Reply to myself… to be more precise, what I meant was “I’m not willing to pay $25 for a beat-up used paperback that doesn’t produce a dime for the original author.” There’s some sort of business/pricing model that should be there that’s not. I’d almost always pay a buck for an e-book version of an old out-of-print book I’ve gotten interested in, if that money were going to the author. When I did this kind of analysis professionally, I always argued that the authors needed to realize that for out-of-print books, the “competition” was the library and pirating. The price for the e-book version of those old works had to be such that consumers were willing to pay it for the convenience of not going to the library, or spending time finding a bad pirated copy.

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      • What I should also say is that I love books as an actual object. I love the way they feel in my hands, cover art, ownership (I don’t think you really quite own something when it is only in electronic form), the way they fill a room, etc.

        I know a few people who have gone completely digital and see me as being an enemy to the environment (semi-seriously). I don’t like the idea of future generations not knowing what an actual book is and thinking of bookshelves as unnecessary.

        So I am a bit of a luddite this way.

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  3. I have a very serious issue with reading: I’m addicted. Truly addicted.

    Once i start reading something that i have interest in, i dive in head first and don’t come back until it is over. Keep myself thinking about the book at every waking hour, can’t focus on anything else until it is done.

    So what usually happens is this: i get myself a book that i want to read, and it sits besides my sofa for a few weeks. Sometimes months. I dont dare open it until i know i will have enough time to finish it. Then, someday i will tell my wife that i’m lost for a weekend, and i will start reading. And i will read. And read. And read. And read. And then the book is over, and i can come back to reality.

    And when i like what i’m reading, i tend to read fast. Like, really fast. Even though i’m savoring the book, i go through it quite quickly. I think it has to do with the fact that i have read a lot through my life, its just custom.

    My wife adapted to it – when i’m reading something, i’m useless for everything else. If you tell me to watch something on the oven, it is going to get burnt. If you put a alarm clock besides me to ring when whatever is in the oven will be ready, i will most likely not even realise the alarm rang, even if it keep doing so for 20 minutes. If i am taken somewhere to do something that doesnt involve that reading, i will be spaced out through the whole thing.

    It was a fun thing on high school – i think im the only person i know that skipped classes to be reading on the corridor. Did it with The Lord of the Rings, with Sophie’s World, with The Republic, with Ecce Home…

    I do understand that a lot of ‘work reading’ is boring, but I am free from most of it. Sometimes i need to read something that is really atrocious, but on my profession (im a computer programer) it is usually more important to understand the concepts of the ideas than to read about the idea itself. If someone’s idea is good but reading its original author is awuful, it is usually easy to find someone else talking about that particular idea that will make for a more pleasant reading.

    My worst problem with digital age reading is wikipedia. This week i went to wikipedia to try to understand a Smoothsort Algorythm, and 6 hours later i realized it was way past time to have been home and i was reading about Humpback Anglerfishes.

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    • Duuude it’s like we’re twins! I used to read in band practice: I got to play the bells so in between my parts I could browse a paperback while waiting for my next part to come up. Yeah, when the book is good the world dissappears and the pages start flying.
      Do you get any kind of mental anguish if you read a book in an unfinished series, hit the end and then realize the next in the series isn’t published yet? For me it’s like the cartoon coyote hitting a brick wall.

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      • Yes, its horrible.

        For a few years now i refuse to even start a series if it isnt done yet. I waited to read ‘The Emperor’ by Conn Igulden for exactly that reason: My wife ( then girlfriend ) gave me the first book on the series on my birthday, and a few months after she asked if i had liked it. I told her i hadnt read it yet, and she got mad thinking i didnt like the gift. Hard to explain that i hadnt read it yet because the fifth volume of the series had not been published yet, and it wouldnt have been publish next week, by the time i would be done with the first 4. -_-”

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  4. I tend to read very fast, almost skimming, which works well for most non-fiction and light reading, but not for books that are well-written enough to savor. What taught me how to slow down was proofreading for the Vance Integral Edition; it might seem like that would turn reading into work, but, paradoxically, because I had to pay attention to every single word, I enjoyed Vance’s books more than if it had been just pleasure reading.

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  5. My brother’s a book editor. For him, reading has become a chore. When reading becomes a chore, any pleasure is lost. Reading is too general a term to put into one task description, anyway. At its best, reading is when we give the author time to tell his tale, nibbling at the savoury treats he’s made for us. We go through a book in a few days, knowing it took the author a year or more to compose the work and more time for his long-suffering book editor to comb it out and give it a haircut.

    Let’s not call the reading we do for work a pleasure. Such reading is a task.
    Nicholas Carr — I’ve been hearing this sort of nonsense all my life only in my time, it was the perils of reading junk fiction. The Internet has given us something new, something Carr fails to comprehend, something the Greeks once had with the stoa: dialogue, competing viewpoints, right next to each other.

    A book, no matter how well-written, is the viewpoint of its author(s). If it attempts to present multiple viewpoints, those other viewpoints will never be given a fair shake, no matter how noble the intentions of the authors might be. Truth can only be triangulated when all viewpoints have been considered. We don’t have to climb the mountain to ascertain its height, a shadow, a stick, a ruler and a little elementary trigonometry are all that’s needed. The facts don’t take sides but people do. It’s what we make of the facts which matters.

    But reading for pleasure, well, that’s the greatest pleasure in life.

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