Books in a Blog World
Norm Geras points us to LAT book editor David Ulin‘s essay lamenting the “lost art of reading,” specifically the difficulty in concentrating well and long enough to read books. Norm says it’s easy: “You get a book. You switch off various things. If it helps, you close the door. Then you sit down and read. In due course, our man tells us, he does get there. But my, the difficulty. ”
Snark aside, however, Ulin has some good points.
Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. […] Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.
When I was in graduate school 15-odd years ago — before the World Wide Web as we know it, much less Web 2.0, existed — my two major IR professors were having one of those internecine debates that happen in academe. The more senior prof wrote books at a prodigious pace and eschewed articles, especially those which crunched data, as a waste of time. The younger argued that most books were OBE by the time they came out and that they tended to belabor a point that could be easily made in an article. The Web/book argument is essentially a continuation of that debate.
I read non-fiction almost exclusively and have gone from being a book person to an article person. The efficiency of getting 85 percent of the point in eight pages that I would get in 300 pages has made it so that I seldom read books cover-to-cover. Even very fine books, such as David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerilla, are hard to finish because my inner editor quickly says “yeah, yeah — you’ve already said that in a slightly different way in the previous chapter.” To be sure, each new case study reveals additional nuances. But everything beyond the introductory chapter presents a very high work to reward ratio.
Further, the combination of the Internet and the DVR means that we’ve come to expect the ability to access only the information we want and the quickly skip over that which doesn’t interest us. It’s hard to do that with books.
This point, later in the piece, is especially salient to me:
For many years, I have read, like E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” primarily at night — a few hours every evening once my wife and kids have gone to bed. These days, however, after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I’m reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.
For me, it’s slightly different. Yes, there is email and Twitter and YahooNews and whatnot to distract. More importantly, though, is that after spending fourteen hours or so reading, analyzing, and writing in front of a computer screen, reading for pleasure is too much like work. My bedtime reading now consists of exceedingly light fare like Sports Illustrated or Esquire.
While most people don’t write for a living, the computerization of the office means more than ever spend a large part of their workday reading and writing. That’s significant to this discussion. When most toiled on their feet all day, sitting down with a book provided a wonderful change of pace. Nowadays, it’s same old, same old.
Photo by Flickr user ranoush under Creative Commons license.