So Many Words, So Little Time

I’ve long been frustrated by the fact that I’m not able (or willing?) to read all of the books and essays that I think I want to read. I’m further frustrated by the fact that it’s not at all unusual for me to begin reading a book and then abandon it half-way through. Sometimes the abandonment is intentional – that is, sometimes I make a clear decision that it’s not worth my time to finish a book. But more often it’s that I become distracted by something else and simply don’t return to a book that I intend(ed) to finish reading. I’ve just dedicated a couple of shelves by my desk to the books that I’m (still hoping to be) reading now. It’s a little embarrassing to see how many of the books with bookmarks indicating my progress are books that I’ve not picked up for weeks.

This comes to mind (and to this screen) now because of a long article in the New Yorker (March 6, 2023) about the decline of the humanities with the rather powerful (but only slightly overstated) headline “The End of the English Major.” There’s a lot there, but I was particularly struck by a comment from Columbia English professor James Shapiro. “Technology in the last twenty years or so has changed all of us. How has it changed me? I probably read five novels a month until the two-thousands. If I read one a month now, it’s a lot. That’s not because I’ve lost interest in fiction. It’s because I’m reading a hundred Web [are we still capitalizing that word?] sites. I’m listening to podcasts.”

I’m thinking I’ll write a post soon about podcasts and bicycling, so I’ll set that last point aside for the moment. But I wonder what to think about how the time I spend reading the web affects the time I spend reading books. Maryanne Wolf and many others have researched how the medium of our reading affects our reading. Wolf isn’t a Luddite — she finds value in digital texts — but she points to considerable evidence that our online reading is changing not just our reading habits but also our brains.

My deliberate decision to try blogging (again) this year is part of my attempt to engage with others on the web, part of my attempt to “think in public.” But it’s only part of that attempt – I’m also returning slowly to interactions with others Mastodon and that means reading others’ Mastodon comments, following their links to blog posts and other web material. That takes time away from the time I might spend reading books. And it takes even more time away from books if I go down the rabbit holes, following link after link after link. Even without the manipulative tactics of facebook, youtube, etc, it’s very easy for me to spend more time than I’d like following different trains of thought. The trains are interesting, and they go to interesting places that I’m not likely to visit otherwise, but I still go back to the frustration with which I began this piece. I really do believe that I want to read these books. I really do believe that I want to do a deep dive into understanding some particular philosophical question or tradition.

I don’t think the web reading is irrelevant, so I’m not willing to give up on the web. (Leaving social media behind was much easier when the primary choices were sites like facebook, twitter, and youtube.) But I do wonder if the reading tactics I’ve developed for online reading in fact make it more difficult for me to read in an earlier day.

I’m going to leave this here — not because I’ve resolved the issue. Obviously I haven’t. The thinking continues — I really would like to find a good balance between the sorts of dead-tree focused reading I’ve done for years and the more scattered reading I do on the web.