I was thinking about the impact of the internet on reading this week, precisely because of what I was reading. On the one hand, there was a pair of essays on Medium by Hugh McGuire (“Why can’t we read anymore?“) and Bob Stein (“Welcome to the Liminal Space Cafe“), where two very smart people and committed readers argued about what the digital world is doing to our reading practices.
On the other, my own reading during a few days: long form, I finished an excellent history of early nineteenth-century America, What Hath God Wrought? (my review), running 878 pages. I relished more chapters of Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves (my notes so far), which looks to be about 880 pages. I reread Arthur Conan Doyle’s dinosaur adventure The Lost World (no notes yet), which was very short. And I carefully made my way through the middle of The Vorrh, an extraordinary and challenging literary fantasy novel. Short form: I’ve listened to around a dozen short stories in podcast form (some of what I listen to), and read perhaps one hundred articles and blog posts, plus some number of social media updates (Twitter and Facebook primarily, plus Google+ and LinkedIn).
Which is to say: McGuire’s experience doesn’t apply to me at all, but Stein’s does. I do not feel my ability to read has been impaired, but my habits have changed.
Let me explain.
Why do I still read like I used to, back in the misty age before the web? It may be my work, which involves continuous research and environmental scanning. My personal history clearly plays a role (crazed reader as a kid, used bookstore worker in my 20s, education through PhD in literature, about a decade teaching lit). Statistically, I fear that I’m an outlier within the reading public.
I do feel the dopamine itch McGuire describes, but not when reading good stuff. Bad journalism, boring scholarly prose, repetitious blog posts, lame fiction do send me fleeing to other media and tabs. They always have, I think, and perhaps digital media makes it easier for me to step away from the crud. Or perhaps I’ve gotten older, have read more, and am now pickier about reading material.
I also feel the social desire Stein explores, perhaps a kind of social itch. I really want to share what I’m reading. I always have – cf previous notes about working at a bookstore and as lit prof. Now the digital world affords more outlets for this reading-social desire. I sometimes write Goodreads reviews, blog posts here, Facebook mutterings, comments on author’s or podcast’s web sites, and emails to associates, friends, and family. Also on this blog I’ve led sustained discussions about recent books, The Second Machine Age and Our Kids. I share my Kindle annotations, and read other people’s. In another medium, I’ve participated in podcast discussions (Reading Envy, SFF Audio) about books.
Looking back, I can see my reading habits have changed in two other ways. Compared with (say) 1995 or 1980, I read in more venues or platforms, and not in others. I read print books, ebooks, pdfs, and anything the web presents me. For hardware I use print, a Kindle ereader, and my phone. As a kid I used to listen to stories on vinyl records and cassette tapes*, which I don’t now. Instead I listen to mp3 files and streamed audio. I once subscribed to print magazines and read them with varying degrees of fidelity. Now I receive only one or two print journals. Overall I have and use more ways to consume texts.
Media also shapes what I choose to read in ebook or print form.** If a text has important illustrations, such as photographs, drawings, or especially maps, I prefer print. My Kindle ereader and its phone incarnation don’t display these to my satisfaction. If I add a full tablet to my horde, this may change. The Kindle does fine with non-illustrated books – so much so that a somewhat stunned Amazon representative informed me that I had “too many books” on my device. Harrumph!
More media: podcasts are now a serious part of my reading habit. That’s largely because they are excellent machines for multitasking. I listen while driving, which can give me a lot of time for fiction and nonfiction as I drive for family and homestead errands (30 minutes minimum, each way) and for work (two to ten hours each way). I listen while working on the homestead, so short stories and interviews enter one ear while I chop and carry wood, haul stones, weed plots, wash dishes, feed animals, and turn compost. And the podcasting world is so rich these days that I have an excellent (and growing) corpus to select from.
Audio does give rise to a fond wish. I would love to be able to easily and seamlessly transition between reading and listening to a text. So, for example, I could read into a novel on a plane flight, then switch over to an audio version to listen to as I stride across an airport. Has anyone achieved this yet?
And how about you, oh reader? Tell us more about your reading habits in this year of 2015. Are you distracted by the dopamine itch? Do you share more about your reading than before? What platforms do you use?
*I fell in love with H.P. Lovecraft because of a reading on tape. I was 16, and had never heard of the guy, nor was I reading much horror at the time. I was in the habit of checking out tapes from the public library to have something to listen to at night, since I had a terrible time falling asleep back then.
One summer evening as I climbed into bed I grabbed a tape from a small stack. The night before I’d enjoyed a good reading (or was it dramatized performance?) of scenes from Frank Herbert’s Dune. The cassette that surfaced that evening had this legend:
H. P. LOVECRAFT
“THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK”
READ BY DAVID MCCALLUM
None of that meant anything to me. I turned off the lights, inserted the tape, pressed play, and lay back. McCallum’s powerful, sinister voice commenced with this:
I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim—
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
Without knowledge or lustre or name.
I think I eventually fell asleep close to dawn.
If you haven’t read the story (and you should), it concerns a writer who gets caught up in a bad mystery based on an abandoned church. It features forbidden cults, ominous architecture, alluring objects, and a famous or notorious ending. It also has several scenes of scary sleepwalking, which added to young Bryan’s inability to fall asleep.
Naturally I wanted more. And so I got it.
**Thanks to Becky of the Vermont Bookshop for this paragraph’s prompt.