Sunday, July 27, 2008

A closer reading

I felt myself getting into high moral dudgeon over today's New York Times article about reading, till I realized that without really noticing the change I have become a digital reader myself. I still read the Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and at least two magazines, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, cover-to-cover. I skim a few more, like New York, which either adapted itself for the digital age by becoming one info-bit after another (like so many magazines tailored for 20-minute spans) or was always such.

But I think I've read just one or two books this year. There are various reasons for this, but time spent online is at or near the top of the list. I would agree that web-surfing is a form of reading, but like surfing you're always looking for the next wave. There's a distracted, trying-to-keep-up quality to online reading different from the pleasures of long-form immersion. ("Long-form," another bits-and-bytes construction that's crept in.) Between applying two coats of "ballet slipper" pink paint in the baby's room, I hopscotched around the web, flitting from an involved discussion of a local flea market that's attracted the ire of a nearby church to my Facebook page (blogging for wimps, I think) to the usual time-soak suspects. Afterwards, I reclined with a fine book, Richard Aldous' history of prime ministers Gladstone and Disraeli, The Lion and the Unicorn.

The difference in wading through this material was akin to that of a quick, meter's-running shower and a long, relaxing soak. The other difference is that I shower everyday. But I rarely take a bath. I've been reading the book since Christmas, in tiny increments. And I feel vaguely guilty about that: Print is crippled by the convenience of pixels. I'd rather know more about the legendary PMs--how diminished our own politicians seem--than the flea market, which I visited once, but it's more urgent, somehow, to be up to speed on that neighborhood issue. (Will it snowball into a "crisis," that favorite word to get eyes on blogs?)

As a more-or-less crisis-resistant person, I try to go to the flow with these digital-era developments. But something in the Times piece gave me pause. "Young people 'aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. 'That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.'" That may be, but what about connecting the lines to see the big picture? What about discerning throughlines and themes in the various strands? The lack of comprehension bothers me; worse is a professor, even a Michigan State professor, touting this as if it were some sort of breakthrough in the human organism.

Online, responding to a post about you-know-what blockbuster movie complaining about this-or-that change to a mythology some are way too deeply invested in, I said that past generations were irked over adaptations of classic novels; today, it's classic graphic novels that everyone's up in arms about. I took the hit for snobbery (oh, and sorry, Spartans, for the MSU crack) but it was merely an observation. Our little girl will grow up with both, as we grew up with one and gradually adjusted to the other, and it's up to us that she gets a proportionate share of Arthur Miller and Frank Miller. And I'll bet a fair number of eyes glancing briefly over this too-long, no-pictures post are more familiar with the latter than the former.

No comments: