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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    Interesting choice of illustrating photograph, James. A book that appears to be written in Arabic, but the pages are numbered using…well, Arabic numerals, which aren’t use by Arabs.

    Ow, I’m making my own brain hurt too early on a Monday morning.




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  2. Eric Florack says:

    Like you, James, I find that books per se’ no longer hold my attention as they once did. I suppose it to be like the phenom surrounding baseball… we’ve become a society far too much in a hurry to give ourselves over to a book, or 9 innings, or whatever.

    I have found a way around it… I carry electronic versions of books in my Palm.

    At any given time, I have perhaps 100 books in the thing. That sounds like a lot but trust me in terms of memory it’s really not. I’ve usually got at least two books going at any given time. I then read the things when I have some spare time, such as while I’m waiting for a system I’m working on to complete a task, or if, say I’m waiting to pick up my sons at school, or whatever. Snippets of time like that and the ability to put a sizable library on your belt hook equals a lot more reading than I used to do when I had a substantial number of real books.

    I’ll add that such an arrangement gives me the advantage in the ability to search out passages within such works, even when I can’t quite recall where, in what book…(file?)… I saw it.

    Now, there are those who will argue I’ve simply given myself over to the technology, that such technology impedes what Ulin calls “contemplation”. But I wonder about that. I tend to get as much if not more out of books consumed in the manner I’ve described, than I do slowed down to take in an entire book. That’s mostly because I have less time to handle the unique issues with handing the real book.

    As an example the last book I’ve read that was an actual book was Goldberg’s “Liberal Facism”… a great book, given me as a gift by someone who doesn’t understand the technology. It took me a bit longer to go through the book, because I couldn’t take the thing with me as easily as I could my Palm.

    Thinking? I daresay Ulin discounts the ability of the average person these days to walk and chew gum simultaneously. I find myself, on reading, say, a chapter in the Palm, in between job functions, allows me to think about, in what I will call background mode, about what I’ve read, and work on the various implications of the text.

    Like you, James, I write a fair bit. In the course of my daily tasks, there is a lot of I/O for both my day gig and my writing. There does tend to be a bit of a burnout effect, eventually. But it’s by no means crippling.

    {Snipe}

    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’ve gotta find this guy a girlfreind…){/snipe}




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  3. Shlok says:

    One way to navigate this problem – audiobooks.




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  4. John Burgess says:

    I guess I’m a relic of a previous time. Not only do I spend a major portion of the day reading and writing online, but I deeply enjoy the few hours I spend every night reading books.

    I read both non-fiction and fiction at roughly a 50/50 ratio and between five and six books/week. I’d not have it any other way.

    I do note repetitive writing, particularly in non-fiction, but believe that is the result of either bad editing or the writer’s assumption that the reader can’t hold a thought for very long. I can certainly recognize when a writer is simply repeating himself, whether to stress a point or to pad the page count.

    Bad writing is never a pleasure to read, but good writing is often worth more than the simple content being conveyed. It’s easy to find facts on most things. It’s considerably harder to find writing that expresses and explains facts in ways both entertaining and illuminating.




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  5. As you may recall I write YA fiction for a living. And some younger stuff as well.

    I think it’s inevitable that the book goes to the web. But it won’t go there unchanged, it will be enhanced with pix, links, video, music. There’s a very crude example up at:

    http://jakemates.com/frebookdemo/

    The link is to two videos — you have to hit the play buttons.




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  6. John Burgess says:

    Boyd: Not so. Most Arabic speakers use ‘Arabic’ numbering for daily use. In official documents or religious texts you might find Arabic numbering, but as with the calendar, modernity has been accepted for its utility and convenience.

    Particularly in N. Africa, you’ll be hard put to find the squiggly Arabic numbers.




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  7. James Joyner says:

    I think it’s inevitable that the book goes to the web. But it won’t go there unchanged, it will be enhanced with pix, links, video, music.

    Probably right. As Dave Schuler frequently notes, we’ve gone from a literary society to an audio-visual one. I do think novels and fiction generally are of a different piece than non-fiction. While some novels (I’m looking at you, Clancy) could be improved by shortening, they’re seldom repetitive.




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  8. But is your ability to fully understand the ideas and arguments being augmented and increased or are you sacrificing depth for breadth? I do agree that this is just a technological variant on an old problem. Interestingly, over-specialization was the concern when I was in grad school, now it seems to be over-generalization.

    The “USA Today”-ization of popular discourse was something I noticed years ago, even before the Internet took over. IMHO, this contributed to the decline of magazines as much the instantaneous feedback of the Internet. Is it too much of a stretch to say that the public’s desire for short, quick, shallow information blasts contributes to why we can have a 1,000+ page bill to take over health care in this country that almost no one has read? Is this a good thing?




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  9. sam says:

    As an example the last book I’ve read that was an actual book was Goldberg’s “Liberal Facism”…

    Comic books don’t count.




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  10. Dave Schuler says:

    But is your ability to fully understand the ideas and arguments being augmented and increased or are you sacrificing depth for breadth? I do agree that this is just a technological variant on an old problem. Interestingly, over-specialization was the concern when I was in grad school, now it seems to be over-generalization.

    That’s a subject I’ve written about extensively, charles. Just as the transition from orality to literacy had cognitive implications, so does the transition from literacy to visualcy. Abstract reasoning is demonstrably an artifact of literacy and I think we’re already seeing the erosion of logical thinking.

    It will no doubt be replaced by the ability to process information in ways we poor literates will find hard to imagine or understand. And that change in cognition will inevitably have social and political implications.




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  11. Michael says:

    then read the things when I have some spare time, such as while I’m waiting for a system I’m working on to complete a task

    Ah yes, compiling is always a good excuse for doing something else.

    I’ll add that such an arrangement gives me the advantage in the ability to search out passages within such works, even when I can’t quite recall where, in what book…(file?)… I saw it.

    That alone is reason enough for electronic texts in my opinion. I can’t even count the number of times I have wanted to grep a physical book.

    I find myself, on reading, say, a chapter in the Palm, in between job functions, allows me to think about, in what I will call background mode, about what I’ve read, and work on the various implications of the text.

    Studies have show that switching focus to unrelated things actually results in better focus all around. So doing this probably makes burnout less likely (or less soon) for you.

    I think it’s inevitable that the book goes to the web. But it won’t go there unchanged, it will be enhanced with pix, links, video, music.

    I dunno, have you read any of Cory Doctorow’s online books? No multi-media necessary. I think his approach, using a Creative Commons license, has interesting implications on the future of fiction and the resulting fan-fiction market.




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  12. steve says:

    I miss book reading, I am down to 3 or 4 a month now. However, the ability to instantly check on an author’s assertions via the net is, at present, more than enough to compensate. I also think that with blogging having matured, you can find pretty good stuff now, more than just echo chamber material.

    Steve




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  13. Michael:

    Everyone cites Doctorow. And only Doctorow. He’s a one-off.

    The enhanced book will appeal to creatives. I ran it by Stephen King and he liked it. I like it. It would be a new way to write. It would be fun, and we like fun. Better, it would allow us to set up our own separate supplemental profit streams: product placement, merch, score, more conventional ads.

    Publishing 10 years from now will be about iTunes, Google and Amazon. I’m betting on Amazon. The Kindle is a gateway drug. It weans us from print to e-books. Once e-books achieve critical mass Amazon will go on a talent shopping spree, buy up a dozen big names for e-exclusives.

    They’ll be able to offer royalties of 60, 70, 80% because they don’t buy paper and they don’t split with retailers. The big name authors will sign.

    5 years from now Amazon will be a major publisher. 10 years from now they’ll be dominant.

    The current publishing model uses name author’s earnings to subsidize the farm team writers. Amazon/iTunes/Google will decapitate the industry by stealing the big names and they’ll gut publishing like a trout. It’ll be the newspaper industry all over again, and publishers (just now discovering this thing called “the blog”) will be too slow to save themselves.

    I live in this world. If you invest, short publishers.




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  14. Michael says:

    Everyone cites Doctorow. And only Doctorow. He’s a one-off.

    Sorry, he’s the only one I’ve read who’s published under the CC license. If you know of others, I’d certainly be interested in reading them.

    The enhanced book will appeal to creatives. I ran it by Stephen King and he liked it. I like it. It would be a new way to write. It would be fun, and we like fun.

    Okay, but audio and video will disrupt me reading habits, like reading on a crowded plane, or while someone else is watching TV, etc. I don’t want to compete for noise level while I’m reading.

    I live in this world. If you invest, short publishers.

    I don’t, but if I did I would. Just like I would short music publishers and, perhaps further in the future, movie publishers.




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  15. Don Baker says:

    I remember those IR professors well!

    I still find that reading non-work related books relaxes me and clears my mind in the evening, once the wife and kids have gone to bed. I generally read political history and biography – enjoyable relevant to my work, but not as immediate as the current events I read on the Internet.




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