I’ve been scrolling the literary blogs recently as there seems to be nothing new in politics. How many times can one write about Obama’s naiveté and incompetence? This post over at The Elegant Variation caught my eye the other day. It refers back to an essay in the L.A. Times by David Ulin whose subject is how the Internet has ‘fractured our attention spans’ and affected our reading habits. This is something I have thought about often and am constantly on guard against – see this post here, which is related to these concerns. I spend a lot of time on the Internet and am very aware of how one reads a computer screen. We become scanners, pickers and choosers, never fully focused on what’s before us because of the instantaneous and ephemeral nature of Internet content. Those habits can carry over and affect our book reading.
I first noticed this when I graduated college. As I’ve explained elsewhere I started college late. I was already working and owned a home. I had financial responsibilities. So for five years I worked full-time and went to school full-time, a schedule that left me no time for other pursuits, such as reading for pleasure. One of the main reasons I was so eager to graduate was that I would be able to read what I wanted again. But when I started I realized that five years of furiously scanning text books and notes had affected the way I read. I found myself scanning down to the bottom of every page, trying to do the picking and choosing one does while studying for an exam, separating out what’s important and what’s not. It seemed I lost the ability to become fully engrossed in a book, to enter that fugue-like state that all book-lovers know when one becomes unaware of their surroundings. You lose yourself within the book, almost like you’re a part of it, only coming to hours later, like waking up from a dream. I had that ability from the time I started to read as a child. After graduating college at the age of thirty, I wondered if I’d ever get it back.
Fortunately I did, though maybe not to the degree I had it when I was young. I can still lose myself in a book and I hope I always can. I think I’ve mastered what are probably two separate abilities, Internet reading and book reading. One reason may be that I’m in two physically different spots and positions when doing each. When reading on the Internet I’m sitting up, at my computer terminal or sitting at my kitchen table reading on my laptop. I would never read a book in this position. As I’ve explained before, I read a book lying down, almost always on my living room couch. At this point they seem to have become almost two separate activities, though as I mentioned above, I’m always on aware of how the one can affect the other.
I’ll put it to the test today. I received my copy of Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 in the mail yesterday and I am very eager to get to it. Wood is considered probably the finest historian we have on the founding era and, at 700+ pages, it’s the kind of book you must fall into, become engrossed with, if you hope to get through it in any reasonable amount of time. Usually a book of this length I will figure I’ll be reading it for a good three weeks, maybe a month. I don’t mind this a bit. I like falling into another time and place and living in that world for awhile.