In today’s fast-paced digital world, making the time to read intensively has been a constant struggle for me. I get distracted easily, my phone is a sure-fire way to get easy, fast, and cheap entertainment. I browse reddit endlessly for hours. It’s hilarious and I laugh a lot when I surf through the content. But what have I gained? How have I improved by reading this content? What I have learned? Nothing substantial. Feels great in the moment, but afterward I’m left looking behind at a gross void of wasted time.
I don’t think I’m alone in this, nor is this a new problem. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes, “a Classic is something everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read” hits just a little too close for home for me. Even Twain’s pre-digital age, the world was full of great literature, and few people wanted to put forth the effort to read Moby Dick or Les Miserables. I gaze longingly on this wonderful reading list and cringe with terror. How will I ever begin? How can I understand this stuff? Who will help me?
I guess the journey to a finished book begins with a single page. I need to be patient with my progress.
This musing was brought to you by a recently-published article: Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction by Mairead Small Staid. Written February 8, 2019.
The Gutenberg Elegies : The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkerts
“Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience. It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.” —Bikerts
The “duration state” we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives.
The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness.
A major house’s editor-driven imprint was shuttered recently, while the serialized storytelling app Wattpad announced its intention to publish books chosen by algorithms, foregoing the need for editors altogether.
Editor : Interesting…. editors replaced by algorithms? I don’t like that trend… I haven’t been too impressed with algorithms. Especially Facebook’s, yuck.
Some of the changes Birkerts saw on the horizon have proven dire; the easy, addictive distractions of the screen swallow our hours whole.
In the face of such an insidious, omnivorous menace—not merely the tech giant, but the culture that created and sustains it—I find it difficult to disentangle my own fear about the future of books from my fear about the futures of small-town economies, of American democracy, of the earth and its rising seas.
Editor: I dislike his use of hyperbolic language. Stuff like that always makes me suspcious. Entertaining to read, but let’s all just calm down now.
Are small-town economies really dying? On the one hand, automation of agriculture has probably lessened the need for human labor, therefore reducing population in rural communities (among other reasons)… However, with the rise of technology, so too is “work from home” culture. Skilled minds no longer need to live in a big expensive city to lend their talents to big corporations. There’s a lot of benefits to living in a small town.
“We will be swimming in impulses and data—the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse.”
Editor: I disagree. Resources will always be scarce, money especially and also attention. As people mature and learn delayed gratification, even our impulses will be tamed.
I am both part and not part of this new generation. I was born in 1988, two years before the development of HTML. I didn’t have a computer at home until middle school, didn’t have a cell phone until I was eighteen. I remember the pained beeping of a dial-up connection, if only faintly. Facebook launched as I finished up high school, and Twitter as I entered college. The golden hours of my childhood aligned perfectly with the fading light of a pre-internet world; I know intimately that such a world existed, and had its advantages.
Editor: Wow… this writer nailed it. Relatable. Described me perfectly (born in 1985). People who read this and fear for the next generations, may be comforted to know that I am attempting to raise my son in a somewhat digitally sterile environment. I do what I can to reduce his screen time, get him out playing with other children, and carve out time to read books. I’m certainly not alone and other parents are out there doing the same.
“Through reading and living I have gradually made myself proof against total ravishment by authors. Yet so vivid are my recollections of that urgency, that sense of consequence, that I foolishly keep looking for it to happen again.” The heightened state brought on by a book—in which one is “actively present at every moment, scripting and constructing”—is what readers seek, Birkerts argues: “They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.”
Editor: This thrall can also be accomplished through TV series and movies. People re-watch classic movies again and again, memorizing and reciting quotes from them. I wouldn’t worry about that medium. What I would worry about though is people now watch TV and play sudoku on their phones, or scroll reddit/twitter while doing something else. That’s the kind of mindless behavior we all need to be aware of and reduce.
Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.
The power of art—and many books are, still, art, not entertainment …
Editor: People also need to be aware that not all books are created equal. There’s still plenty of “trash” out there. If harlequin romance novels are your thing, you can’t delude ourselves into thinking you’ve read a book.
Historian Rolf Engelsing
Reading “intensively” / Vertical Reading
- readers before the nineteenth century
- books are scarce and expensive
- read aloud and many times over
- deep, devotional practice
Reading “extensively” / Horizontal Reading
- more reading materials surfaced : newspapers, magazines, and ephemera
- read the materials once, often quickly, and move on
- skimming along the surface
What I do when I look at Twitter … I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it.
If I’ve spent too long before the pixelated page, that experience, too, clings to the hours that follow. … my thoughts vibrate at the frequency of content, of discourse: pithy, argumentative, living in anticipation of retort. I debate imagined trolls in the shower … ghosts seep through the words on the screen, ghosts of screeds and inanities, of hate and idiocy, of so much—so much!—bad writing.
Editor : And you know what really bugs me? There’s SO MUCH BAD WRITING out there that it’s hard to find something good to read. You might invest a couple of hours browsing for the right book, trying it out and reading a few pages, and then you have to ditch it because it’s just terrible. Do this a couple of times and you’ll find yourself frustrated and possibly give up the search.
When attempting “hard” works like Moby Dick or Le Miserables… we have to be compassionate with ourselves (and others). It’s a difficult undertaking and we have to be patient with small progress.
“…we will seek out the word on the page, and the work that puts us back into the force field of deep time … The book—and my optimism, you may sense, is not unwavering—will be seen as a haven, as a way of going off-line and into a space sanctified by subjectivity.”
Time feels especially shallow these days, as the wave of one horror barely crests before it’s devoured by the next, as every morning’s shocking headline is old news by the afternoon. Weeks go by, and we might see friends only through the funhouse mirrors of Snapchat and Instagram and their so-called stories, designed to disappear. Not even the pretense of permanence remains: we refresh and refresh every tab, and are not sated. What are we waiting for? What are we hoping to find?
We know perfectly well—we remember, even if dimly, the inward state that satisfies more than our itching, clicking fingers—and we know it isn’t here. Here, on the internet, is a nowhere space, a shallow time. It is a flat and impenetrable surface. But with a book, we dive in; we are sucked in; we are immersed, body and soul. “We hold in our hands a way to cut against the momentum of the times,” Birkerts assures. “We can resist the skimming tendency and delve; we can restore, if only for a time, the vanishing assumption of coherence. The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”
Mairead Small Staid is a poet, critic, and essayist living in Minnesota.