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.