by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018
I used to be able to sit with my book for hours, lost in reading. Now I’m lucky if I can make myself sit in a chair and read a book for an hour or even thirty minutes. After years of digital reading, I’m craving old fashion books again.
How and what I read has changed in these digital times. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the digital technology is changing me. Other factors come into play too, like having more content and greater variety. Or different ways to read – the printed page, the digital screen, or the audiobook.
I actually spend many hours reading every day, but it’s mostly off my PC, iPhone, iPad or Kindle. And most of those words aren’t from books. When I was younger, I was never much of a newspaper reader. I loved books and magazines. I could read for hours. I still read books, but I often don’t finish them, and I rarely read a magazine anymore. My mind has developed an impatience that leaves me too fidgety for books. Newspapers have long ago disappeared from my life, and magazines have almost faded into nonexistence. I don’t want books to go too.
Every day I spend at least an hour, maybe more reading the New York Times and Flipbook from my iPhone. Flipbook does gather content from magazines, newspapers, and websites from all over the world, so I’m actually reading articles that used to be presented in paper newspapers and magazines. But the experience is different.
In pre-digital times, my days had a smaller selection of articles to read. I would find something that interested me and generally read the entire piece. For some of my favorite magazines, I’d spend hours reading the whole issue. Now I flip past dozens of articles, maybe even a hundred, skim read ten to twenty, and hardly ever finish one. I usually add a few to Instapaper every day telling myself I’m going to go back and study them, but I seldom do.
I’ve become a vacuum cleaner of words rather than a reader. At least not in the old sense of reading. I still finish three or four books a month, but mostly via audio. I’m currently listening to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s 26 hours and 20 minutes. The action is extremely slow paced, but I’m enjoying it very much. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to read it. I did eyeball read Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit on my Kindle this week, but it was a mere 130 pages.
I finished Solnit’s book aching both to hear it, and to read a paper copy. Psychologically, I felt I wasn’t getting all of what Solnit had to say from the Kindle. I need to hear someone read it with the proper pacing, cadence, and inflections, plus I wanted to see the words on actual paper. I wanted to squeeze every idea out of her book, make notes, and distill all the points into one concise outline. I doubt I’ll ever take the time to do so. I did highlight passages in my Kindle and printed those out so I could discuss them with my friend Linda during our two-person book club. We discussed Men Explain Things To Me twice, but that wasn’t enough. What Solnit had to say was something I wanted to memorize, but sadly, the modern way we read means rushing on to something new.
With audio listening, I can get through very long books, including nonfiction and classic novels I never had the patience to read before. Plus I enjoy them far more. If I read Doomsday Book with my eyes I’d miss so much of its richness, especially all her work with middle English (it’s a time travel story). However, I recently discovered I was missing other aspects of novels by not reading with my eyes.
PBS is running a series now called The Great American Read. Each weekly episode has readers explain why they love their favorite books. I’ve listened to Jane Eyre, a book I would never have read with my eyes. The audiobook had a lush dramatic reading, and I admired the writing and story but didn’t really care for the characters. But when its fans were interviewed on PBS, they read a segment from the book, highlighting the words, and I realized why those fans identified and loved Jane Eyre the character.
I also saw that other readers like to savor sentences in fiction, something I don’t take the time to do. I love audiobooks because they are slow. When I was young I’d speed read through books anxious to find out what happens. I missed a lot. The slowness of audiobooks allows me to get so much more. But seeing the words of Jane Eyre on TV highlighted as a reader read them, I understood to get deeper into a book I needed to read with my eyes and go even slower.
Our technology allows us to feel we’re reading more, giving us the illusion that we’re learning more, but are we? Part of my problem is I buy far more books than I can ever read, and find far more articles each day than I can ever finish. The pressure to consume them all makes me rush by their words. Reading off the computer screen, iPhone screen, iPad screen, the Kindle screen allows me to feel like I’m mass-consuming information, but I’m not sure I’d call that reading anymore.
I love computers and technology. I have no doubts that it has enhanced my life greatly. But I’m realizing my brain can only process so much data per day. Sometimes I feel my aging brain is slowing down, but I’m not so sure. I feel much wiser at 66 than I did at 26. I know I’ve always been a skimmer over knowledge, that I’m a dilettante of learning. Digital technology gives us the illusion we’re more productive, but I don’t think it’s true.
I’m struggling with the psychology of reading. I’m discovering I need to read with both my eyes and ears and on paper, screen and headphones. That there isn’t one way to read. I’m beginning to buy my favorite books on Kindle, Audible and paper and feel the need to process the best books three times. Most books only need one “reading” but some need two or three. I’m also learning that I probably shouldn’t waste my reading hours on those one-time books anyway.
For fiction, I feel the first reading should be audio. Audio has the greatest impact if it’s read by a skilled dramatic narrator. The second reading should be on the Kindle so I can highlight passages, especially if I want to write about the book or discuss it with friends. But for longterm enjoyment, I feel I need to bond with a printed copy of the book, one that I actually admire for its cover, design, fonts, and paper.
For nonfiction, I feel it’s best to start with the Kindle edition, and then go to audio. I like a physical book to flip through randomly. I’ve always loved hardbacks, but I’m starting to think smaller trade paperbacks are nicer for flipping.
I don’t like big heavy books or books with tiny print. So any book that’s hard to hold or requires squinty-eyes to read I leave to audio or Kindle. The other day I almost bought a beautiful hardback edition of Poe’s complete works. It looked new but was only $3 used. But I realized I wouldn’t like holding it. I still regret not buying it, but it was the right decision.
For years now I’ve been buying my favorite books on audio and Kindle, but now I’m also wanting a copy to hold. The hold-in-my-hands copy must have a kind of charm, either a beautiful cover or a unique character. I’m thinking of thinning out my library so the books I keep are ones I loved to hold and read with my eyes. (Thank you Marie Kondo.)
I don’t know why this craving to read books has returned to me now. I don’t feel anti-technology. I would never give up audiobooks or Kindle reading. I guess what I’m learning is no matter how carefully I read a book, with whatever technology, I never get all it has to offer.