The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 19
I enjoyed Ezra Klein and Maryanne Wolf's conversation too, and was delighted to see it elaborated on here. Illich's perspicacity continues to astound me.
A few corollaries I observed. Given reading is cognitively demanding and an astounding human achievement, we could also say it depends on a supportive cultural milieu - a just-so arrangement of institutions and values. It is therefore fragile. It feels like an inheritance that we are spending but are due to run out of, sooner or later.
Secondly, although contemporary forms of communication like the YouTube video essay or the Tiktok video are more technologically advanced, they are simultaneously more primordial. A viral Tiktok dance is closer to a pre-modern communication form than reading a book in some ways. The screen doesn't demand new literacies of us, though it does occasion them.
A final observation, I suppose, is how much institutional life is arranged around certain kinds of shallow texts like reports and working papers. This adds weight to observation that this isn't some niche culture of tech bros. Technique has structured bureaucratic life such that almost every report is written for, at best, data transfer and, at worst, to shore up some argument that supports someone's existing purposes (think environmental impact assessments). The end result is that so much reading in institutional life is functionally performative, and that institutions become sclerotic, having lost the main form of information transfer that permits them to change.
I was surprised that neither Ezra Klein or Marianne Wolf mentioned poetry. Reading a good poem forces me to read it aloud to hear the way the words sound, and to reread it again and again to capture the meaning and emotional content. Poetry cannot be skimmed or absorbed as facts or information. I find poetry the best antidote to the "shallows" of internet reading that so often overwhelms me.
Thanks for sharing, a lot to think about. I sometimes view reading as traversing the world. I’m reminded of, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” - Augustine. I have two feet, there are different modes of traveling, just as there are different modes of reading. I can’t visit every corner of the earth in my lifetime, I must recognize my limitations. To add to this world image, I’m reminded of Italo Calvino, “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”
I read one book on literature a while ago and was struck by this thought, reading as exploration, entering into an author’s mind and to explore it as a universe with twirling planets and rings. By this universal limitation, there is the joy of sharing. My friend tells me of the beauties of Iceland or the wonder of the Niagara Falls, places I’ve never visited. I tell him of the greenness of the Tuscan hills and pleasures of la pasta amatriciana.
I studied Italian for 5 years, there are thousands of languages I could have studied, but I would say it was time well-spent. Perhaps one can say the same to books, there are thousands of books to be read, but there times well spent. Someone could spend years in Dostoyevsky, but I can spend years in Dante. We can learn from each other.
I’m also considering how few books people had at their libraries in the past (few to our standards). When we compare them to the amount of books we have today, we may say their libraries were small, but perhaps there is something to be learned about “dwelling”
Beautifully and empathetically put. Thank you. That Auden quote in the footnotes reminded me of a column Franklin Foer wrote for The Atlantic some years ago about reading Mary Oliver's poetry as a counter-practice: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/mary-olivers-poetry-captures-our-relationship-technology/589039/. Foer talks about reading poetry as a way to focus the gaze and meditates on Oliver's line "attention is the beginning of devotion." Deep reading has always seemed to me a kind of devotional practice (as well as an art). Of course only some of us believe in it. Thanks for calling our attention to that in your piece.
“But we should occasionally resist the imperative to optimize all experiences for efficiency, which as a goal has a way of distorting every practice and vanishing all that cannot be quantified.”
Having just moved to a country - Portugal - that is less enmeshed in this imperative (businesses often close for long lunches, statutory holidays are numerous, and weekends are for time off work) I am struck by just how much of my way of thinking and living has been formed by technique. Having just joined an (online) book study of a difficult text (René Girard’s “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”) I am grappling with much of what you have written about here. Do I stick with the e-book I have started with or buy the physical book? (Tending toward the latter, as flipping to a given page during discussion is much easier with a book in hand, and marking up a physical book seems to lend itself to a deeper reading than annotating it digitally.) I am also less tempted to go down rabbit holes if I have the physical book in hand: I have to grapple with the text in front of me, and defer questions I’m tempted to immediately Google.
Much to ponder: thank you!
Somewhat deliberately, and somewhat accidentally, I read this piece sitting in my office, in direct view of my supervisor, on paper, which I’d printed using the workspace’s effectively unlimited supply of ink and paper. I print a lot of emails and articles out this way (the Earth weeps, but insofar as I think reading is Good, and reading Well is Good, I can justify it to myself).
One funny thing that reading physical material does is convey seriousness: I felt comfortable reading this printed on paper in front of my boss in a way that I wouldn’t if it were in my gmail inbox or on Substack.com, despite them being equally visible to her. I think if I got “caught” reading extracurricular material on paper, it would have enough more gravitas to it that it would be seen as stimulating enough to overcome its irrelevance to my work.
And, Michelle, if you’re reading this: hello, and we have more in common than it would otherwise seem!
What I took away from this is that we are in too much of a hurry and worship efficiency more than we should. It reminds me of the book "Cheaper by the Dozen".
When I started to learn computer languages, I learned ASM86 then BASIC, COBOL and C. It took time. Now a lot of programming is done by "drag and drop" with the loss of knowledge of how it actually works.
Yes, you could possibly compress Brothers Karamazov into a 6 paragraph tweet, but what would be lost? And in that loss, goes the understanding.
Thanks for this as it resonates with my own struggle with concentration while reading. Which has improved measurably after reading Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows.
As always, love your writing. One point not included, perhaps not related to technology, is that a book, at least a novel is a story. People have been story tellers before writing, and some of us love a good story. Early books like Gilgamesh, written on stone tablets, still tell a good story. Maybe an imagination is needed for such reading. I even enjoy reading recipe books, imagining the result. I probably read two books a month, and listen to three or four audio books; agin because I love a good story. I've written two books, and even my best friends haven't read them, they are not readers. Thank you again for your writing (love it).
I find this quite relatable - particularly the parts about different ways of engaging with material. I use them all. I find them all useful and convenient to my own experience, and know that many of the formats are necessary for some people to be able to access the content at all. But it is true that it does change the way we engage with the texts.
When I am reading a book, I flip back and forth through the pages quite a bit. It is part of my reading process. In fact, even as I have aged and my eyes have struggled and I have had to adjust to how and when and where I read, I have never really gotten accustomed to audiobooks. The reason for this is not some claim that listening to a book is not really reading. I absolutely think it is reading. It is just not very suitable to my way of reading.
I will often zone out as the audiobook is playing and miss things. Or even if I don't zone out, I often find myself wanting to go back and relisten to something from the previous page or from earlier in the piece and not having a good way to do that. Not to mention the fact that it turns out I'm pretty picky about what voice is reading an audiobook. So whenever possible, I am reading words on a page.
I enjoy reading. I enjoy taking in different perspectives as well as information. I read not only for information transfer, but for the love of characters and stories and snapshots - slices of life. This is probably why I love the short story format so much, but it is also why I love novels. Both are full of characters and snapshots and situations that I can take in and ponder.
Reading is an important part of my life. That said, I think we have a strange relationship with reading in our society. We simultaneously glorify it, and discourage it by the pace and other elements of day-to-day life. We expect a certain degree of literacy from all people, regardless of the fact that it does not come as easily to some as it does to others - not to mention that neither books nor reading instruction/supports are uniformly accessible to all people. I find that to be a huge problem - just as I find all uniform expectations of academic achievement to be problematic. It sends a message that a person's worth is wrapped up in how or when or if they achieve certain "milestones" (such as reading or other specific skills), and perpetuates an assumption that all people have the tools (whether internally, externally, or both) to achieve these things if they only put in the effort.
In the book "The Uncontrollability of the World," Harmut Rosa refers to this as the "parameterization of skills development." Rosa writes: "Parameterization of skills development has become the rubric under which educational policy and 'evidence-based' research on child-rearing seek to make educational processes measurable and thus controllable." (He cites some other readings in this point as well.) Education, he argues, is "at best a semicontrollable process of establishing resonance between subject and world or between child and a certain segment of world." The tendency to make educational or developmental progress measurable is an attempt to make it controllable, which only makes true resonance more difficult to achieve.
In addition, the world is different now than it was when these uniform expectations were put into place. I cannot quite imagine what it would be like to be a young person right now in school given reading assignments or having library time. There's just no way to wrap my mind around how different that must be for kids now who have experienced media and technology in such different ways then what I had experienced at their age. People who did not grow up with the same degree of technology are often quick to discount younger generations and call them lazy because of such things. I find that incredibly unfair and inaccurate. We just can't quite imagine the differences in the way that information is shared, accessed, and used from generation to generation.
I am an unabashed fan of books as artifacts in themselves and also as media. That said, I recently purchased a Kindle Paperwhite and I find myself reading more than I have in years. I do find this medium better suited to fiction, though. As you pointed out, flipping back and forth between pages for reference is more cumbersome than with an actual book.
I hesitate to defend “SBF,” but I have read, or at least started to read, books that could have been six-paragraph blog posts.
At the other end of the spectrum, I've read one religious book that was highly repetitive, but to the good effect of trying to communicate, insofar as possible, something ineffable. Inattentiveness, or lack of sympathy with that purpose, could have resulted in facile dismissal.
The issue I grapple with is how to control the short stuff so that it doesn't crowd out the long stuff.
In the universe of my own life there is an effort/reward paradigm, such that putting almost any intentional effort into almost any change in the resulting experienced world is rewarding. As in just that I tried consciously can make the outcome rewarding.
I find that I can't get this from any other medium, in the realm of pastimes, as well as from reading a novel or interesting book.
When it "gets going" the book seems to be the best.
That said, anyone who's relatively nomadic and hasn't tried for a while should have an e-reader; they have come along in leaps and bounds i.m.h.o.
When I heard the SBF quote, I immediately thought of the countless business/self-help/TED talk type books that could probably mostly be turned into blog posts. I think there may be a bifurcation happening, where there are a lot of people who almost *only* read those kind of books, and so come to the conclusion that books are a waste, and a lot of people who *never* read those books, and so cannot possibly imagine turning a book into a blog post.
On the other hand, SBF has some rather interesting takes on Shakespeare, so it's not like he doesn't know that other things exist.