Reading Habits

I read a lot. Mostly I read blog posts, picked out from my Google Reader stream. I read these all in a blur, constantly hitting the ‘j’ key (a shortcut for next), generally restricting my gaze to the headline, only occasionally stopping to read the article text itself. Often the entry is a description of a longer article or something involved like a photo gallery or video. I open these out into new tabs in my browser and continue on: ‘j’, ‘j’, ‘j’. Then when I’m done gulping down the stream I move on to the opened tabs, reading each article (or determining that I don’t need to read it after all), closing the tab, moving to the next one, from left to right. Sometimes with especially long articles I will click a button associated with the Readability service that will send the article to my tablet or my Kindle for reading later. This process can take from 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on my interest in the articles (this assumes that I’ve ‘kept up’ by ‘clearing’ my list on the previous day). On average my eye passes over something like 150 items, 150 headlines I have to make determinations about. It has the feel of a daily chore; it is, according to the local meme in my house, “important”1 .

In addition to this bizarre, harrowing ritual I read the newspaper. These days I am trying to keep up some hard-won French reading skills by reading Le Monde on my Kindle. I try to give about an hour to this. I have always found artifacts from other cultures, other things being equal, to be more interesting, simply because of the formal differences. A stupid pop song in another language is more interesting than a song in English where I can appreciate the lameness of the lyrics. A conventional comedy or action film from another culture can be enlivened by the strangeness of ambient details which take on their own sociological interest for me. If the dialogue or story are boring I can try to figure out what the characters are eating or the political context behind certain statements. Likewise reading Le Monde is like reading the New York Times, except that it takes longer for me to read, there are certain expressions and allusions that are mysteries to me, and it’s mostly about Europe. But it’s so fun to read! There’s an extra intellectual and creative challenge built in to the task of trying to figure out what the hell is going on. The best moments are when you pick up shades of gallic irony and humor in the diction, like the chicken company on the verge of bankruptcy in danger of being ‘plucked’.

Finally, I try to read longer texts. The truth is that my ability to read books has been in descent ever since college. I was seduced away by that stream of blog posts, also by a tendency to read magazines (I always read Wired cover to cover and used to do the same with Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly), also by video games, consuming television series and movies on Netflix and a general uptick in busy-ness. The Kindle has absolutely resurrected my desire and capacity to read books. It’s hard to say why. It might be something as stupid as a habituated preference for screens. The fact that it’s one of the devices that I bring everywhere and I resort to it whenever bored could be another reason. It’s also very easy to ‘stream’ books by purchasing the next book in a series or another book by the same author as soon as you’re done with a book2. This streaming of books is similar to the rapid “conquering” of a television series or a film genre that Netflix makes possible.

With the Kindle I’ve gotten back into the habit of reading long works, but mostly fiction. I read plenty of long-form political and sociological analysis on the Web, but it’s been a long time since I read a long nonfiction work from beginning to end (I’ve almost never read any history). This is something I’m fairly ashamed about, because I have a liberal arts education and a master’s in philosophy. When these institutions have pushed me to read texts for class I’ve been set ablaze by their ideas, perhaps even going overboard in the degree to which I incorporated their outlooks (in college I was in turn a Stoic, then a Humeian, then a Kantian, then a Hegelian, then a Nietzschean). I found writing papers in graduate school — trying to understand the system of the work and setting up a controversy to hang a paper on — extremely satisfying, extremely fun. I liked the experience of becoming a mini-expert on some marginal issues in the systems of these heavy thinkers. To this day some chance comment might elicit from me an impromptu (and probably unwanted) discourse about Maimonides’ theory of scriptural interpretation or my understanding of the Absolute in Hegel. But time moves on, these institutions no longer terrorize my life, and I’m not reading these texts anymore. I hate what this says about me and about the original importance of those texts for me.

The total impression this account should leave is that my reading is eclectic and geared toward the timely (blog posts and newspaper articles) and my longer reading is dominated by fiction. The blog reading in particular takes the form of a senseless consumption. With how much credibility can I claim that I have a lasting impression from any of the 150 items that I’ve encountered during my feedreader power hour? I’m pretty sure my brain is shutting down at some point, not actually recording anything, for want of any consistency in the subject of the posts. I’m probably just whipping up a batch of ADT3 in there. I get the same feeling to a lesser degree with the other reading and video watching I do. I’m not doing anything with the information or content or knowledge that I’m taking in, I’m just collecting and consuming, and oftentimes I’m hurrying ahead with what I’m currently reading or watching in order to conquer the next thing. This is part of a larger pattern in my life, which is that I keep taking in more and more rich experiences (books and movies but also trips, intense work experiences, major life changes like getting married or learning how to drive, etc.) but I’m doing nothing to process or differentiate these experiences. It seems like you can get away with not processing experiences if you live a relatively simple life but not when you’re a world-devouring monster like me.

Anyway, there are elements of my reading regimen that I hope to change. I recently stopped subscribing to Techcrunch, because I realized that I was literally skipping through almost all the headlines (also the personalities and quality of analysis are awful). I probably don’t need to know about every upcoming Android handset. I would have trouble foregoing Google Reader completely, especially BoingBoing4, but if I could pare my list down even more I could probably transform it into a less soul- and attention-destroying activity. In general, though, I want to start committing to longer, more serious texts5 on the condition that I will also put the work in to process them. The best way I know to do this is to write about my understanding of the text. This post is really a preamble for my next post, which is going to be about a philosophical text I read in full. Something I loved about the experience of reading this book, which at times was quite a slog, was that I genuinely had trouble understanding some of the points. With most things I read there’s a kind of automatic and superficial understanding (that is, it might fall apart if challenged but it never is) but with this text I know that I need to spend more time to have a meaningful understanding, yet I am sufficiently excited about what I did understand to want to make the effort. This is a good feeling because it suggests to me that what I’m reading might actually matter.

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  1. As in “I can’t leave yet. I have to finish reading my feed. It’s important.“.[back]
  2. That’s how I read the first five books in Song of Ice and Fire so quickly.[back]
  3. Attention Deficit Trait, I read a post about it once.[back]
  4. I like to be down with the freshest memes.[back]
  5. I know this doesn’t preclude fiction. It’s just that fiction is so easy for me to read, consumptively, that I don’t have to make a conscious resolution about it. I would like to write more about fiction, though.[back]