Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reading, part 2

Thinking more about all the recent debates about reading online (is Google Making us Stupid, and today’s NYT article on whether or not we’re reading online--and someday I may provide links) has me reflecting on my own reading practices. Like the author of the Atlantic piece, I too have a hard time sitting down and reading long books. But in my case one reason (or, perhaps, excuse) isn’t the ability to concentrate, but rather the distractions of young children. Being a very involved, hands-on parent means that I don’t have long stretches away from them to read. It’s easier to do quick things on the computer in the office when the opportunity arises because it’s usually interruptable and it makes us feel busy. We’ve worried that our children probably don’t see us modeling book reading that much as a consequence of this. On the other hand, our house is filled with probably thousands of books (less so nowadays in that a number are in storage since we’re trying to sell the house—apparently books count as clutter) and it’s said that just having books around is a good influence on children. As the kids get older (and learn to read and hopefully enjoy reading), we’re hoping to have more time to sit down for longer stretches and get back into some books.

As an aside, there’s a debate in the NYT piece about books not giving a variety of perspectives, or web-reading being broad but shallow. I wonder if web reading is in the end more solipsistic (that is, self-centered); yes you are the one putting together the beginning, middle, and end of the story, you are gathering the pieces you need and contributing as well to the ongoing conversation. This is the fully customizable Daily Me that Negroponte talked about a decade or more ago. But getting lost in a book, either fiction or non, means immersing oneself in someone else’s world**, which is an important skill (to stand in someone else’s shoes, getting away from oneself).

**Yes, I know enough about reader response theory to know that it’s never purely the author’s world.


Pondering some of the new debates about reading (like the Atlantic article on Google making us stupid and the recent NYT piece about reading online). More thoughts percolating, but for now I'm struck by how utilitarian reading is conceived in some of these debates, especially in support of the benefits of reading online (it's quick, efficient, multiple view points, etc.), and that pleasure and aesthetics get short shrift. Not just the "curling up in a comfy chair and cracking open a tome" but also the idea of losing oneself in prose.

I've been slowly inching my way through Pynchon's Against the Day and was thinking how different the experience is to that described by the web-reading school. Pynchon must frustrate the hell out of those skimming for key points. Instead, one puts one's kayak in at the start of the sentence and just hang on as you plunge along, or perhaps bounce lightly from phrase to phrase, until one comes to a rest. Then up and over the period into the next sentence, caught in eddies and side currents, asides and digressions and qualifiers and descriptives. The fun's in the ride.

Now, if all writing and reading was like this, we'd be in trouble. There's a diversity of uses and pleasures in reading and we need to be careful to acknowledge as many as we can.