So I recently got an interesting email from my friend and editor Rod Dreher — you do read Big Questions Online, don’t you? — who tells a thought-provoking story about the combined effects on a reader, namely him, of (a) an iPad and a (b) sabbatical from blogging. With his permission I share it with you:
So, I burrowed in last night to read an hour of [Jonathan Franzen’s] “Freedom,” and ended up staying on the couch for two hours, until I finished the book … er, novel; I was reading it on my iPad, so it wasn’t really a book. This morning, I tried to recall the last time I had finished a novel, or finished any book (I’ve always got several going at any given moment). I couldn’t. Partly this is because Franzen’s novel is such a good read, but I think mostly it’s because I was in the habit of stopping whatever I was doing to blog about a compelling insight, or even simply to blog a moving passage of whatever I was reading. It occurred to me this morning that this way of reading worked hard against allowing a narrative to sink its hook into me. I was never able to give myself over completely to the narrative, fictional or non-fictional, because I was always standing outside of it, ready to talk about it online — and I would stop reading cold to go do that. It made for good blogging, I think, but a book never was able to cast its spell. Being away from blogging for three weeks may — may — have given me back my ability to experience a book as it ought to be experienced. It was kind of, I dunno, exhilarating.
I wonder if I do this to high school students sometimes–make them stop and talk about what they are reading so constantly that I create that interrupted, hook-less reading experience. Perhaps if I just let them read the silly book we could then talk about it afterward; perhaps then they'd actually reach the end and have enjoyed the process.
Last May I spent two weeks sailing back from St. Croix to Montauk, and we had remarkably fair weather for most of the passage, and as a result, for the first time in my life I read a book a day more than one day in a row. I had never really appreciated how pleasurable reading could be until I had nothing more interesting to do.
I seem to remember Alan saying, about the Shirkey/Carr debate, something along the lines of "Yes, we can still work/live the way we did before the internet, but it takes a herculean amount of self-control."
My own appreciation for how much ideas, ideas I once believed in fiercely, depended on "herculean self-control" has deepened in the past few years. Not enough to change my beliefs wholesale, but enough that they have been tempered. Probably this can happen without been couped up on a boat for two weeks, but some of us are more thick-headed than others.
My wife — to whom the iPad actually belongs, let me say — often accuses me of "having no unblogged thoughts." It's an interesting observation, and for me, kind of an embarrassing one. I love blogging, and built up a pretty large blog following over the years by constantly scanning for interesting information, and putting it on my daily bulletin board to facilitate discussion. I love this stuff! I've not had a blog hiatus in four years, until now … and it occurs to me that my wife reads books, but I just process printed information. You know? For me, it's all part of the same infostream. Because she has no *blogged* thoughts, and doesn't want to have, she has the self-control to give herself over completely to the books she reads. Even as I sat with her iPad reading "Freedom," I fought the impulse to check my e-mail. If I had been able to answer e-mail easily on the thing, using a normal keyboard instead of hunting-and-pecking, I probably wouldn't have been able to resist.
I was reading this morning something about the isle of Iona, in the Scottish Hebrides, and how St. Columba and his followers established a monastic community there. It would probably be a very good thing for me if I spent a year there, completely unplugged. Funny, but the compulsion to stop reading and write about what I'm reading, and to "talk" about it with my blog audience, probably results in me understanding less about what I'm reading than if I had simply held off until I finished the book in the normal way.
This morning I climbed back into my still warm bed armed with a cup of tea with the intention of reading one or both of the books on my bedside table – instead I picked up my iPhone, scanned my email, read the news headlines, clicked into tweetdeck, caught up with some of my beloved twitterfolk, favorited half a dozen tweets with links, followed a link, read an article, switched into IM, chatted with dearest friend on other side of the world who sent me the link to your piece here Text Patterns, discussed the article, iPads, blog comments and more – all the while Clay Shirky's "Cognitive Surplus" sat two thirds read, just under Ori and Rom Brafman's "Click" – half read. I used to read more in bed.
Rod, are you going to blog again soon?
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