Reading As Counter-Practice
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 19
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. I’ve had reading on my mind the past few days, so what you will find in this installment are some reflections on the practice of reading. You’ll also find some relevant quotations scattered throughout.
Let's think about reading for a moment. It’s been on my mind the past few days, and there are at least three reasons why.
First, I recently listened to Maryanne Wolf's conversation with Ezra Klein about “deep reading.” Wolf is a scholar of literacy based at UCLA. She is best known for her 2008 book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain as well as Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World published in 2019. She is an earnest and spirited conversationalist, and I was glad I listened.
Second, I stumbled upon a tweet (yes, Twitter stumbles along) from Molly White which featured two screenshots with the caption: “what is it with crypto people and books?” The first screenshot is of a tweet by Vitalek Buterin, one of the co-founders of the cryptocurrency Ethereum, in which he writes, “Question for people who argue that reading long-form books is virtuous or even necessary: Are podcasts an acceptable substitute? If not, why not, and what even is the difference between a podcast and an audiobook? (I frequently listen to both).” The second screenshot is of an exchange between Sam Bankman-Fried, now mostly famous for losing roughly $9 billion in a single day, and writer Adam Fisher. Here's the exchange narrated by Fisher:
White, who is an outspoken critic of cryptocurrencies, linked these two sentiments and implied a rather sneering judgment on them both, but this wasn’t quite fair. While I’m critical of what I think might be some of his underlying assumptions, Buterin’s questions are not at all uncommon and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be answered in good faith. Bankman-Fried’s comments, however, ooze a Sophoclean degree of hubris, and he probably deserves the scorn that has been heaped upon him. But, I suspect that his sentiments are not at all confined to “crypto people” as White suggested.
Third, for the first time in quite awhile I am approaching the end of a novel.
The simple, rather sad truth of the matter is that some of this has amounted to my remembering certain things that I should not have forgotten. Let me try to capture some of what I’ve learned again in a few observations stemming from these three items.
“Even if one reads in broad daylight, outside, darkness gathers around the book.”
Reading is a remarkable human achievement
It is easy to forget that writing is a technology, a tool for communication that was invented and variously iterated over time. Indeed, it is easy to forget that writing, and specifically alphabetic writing, is a relatively recent development in human history, and widespread literacy even more recent still. As Wolf puts it in her interview with Klein, reading is not natural. There is nothing about human physiology that would lead inexorably to the advent of literacy. Yet it happened. This thing that I am doing just now as I type and which you are doing, in turn, just now as you read is almost magical. My thoughts, some small bit of my interior life is transmitted to you in another time and place through an incredibly simple technique of arranging two dozen or so symbols on a page. And most of us who have grown up in a literate society take it utterly for granted.
To my mind, Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy remains an insightful exploration of the psychological and social consequences of literacy. It gave me a pattern of analysis that could be usefully applied to other developments in media technology.
“The development of the modern book and of book-culture as we know it seems to have depended on a comparable fragility of crucial and interlocking factors."
Reading is not one thing
This is another point that Wolf stresses throughout her interview. It seems pedantic to mention it, but, again, we are dealing with realities so deeply woven into our daily practices that we cease to think about them at all. Their obviousness paradoxically draws a veil over them. Even though images and video have proliferated exponentially in just the last two decades, we are still swimming in a sea of written words. Many of us spend hours each day reading various kinds of text: emails, text messages, posts on social media, product descriptions on retail websites, reviews, articles, recipes, essays, books, reports, etc. The list can go on and on. But these various texts invite or require different forms of reading. We might glance, we might skim, we might do little more than search for keywords, we might read deliberately, or we might find ourselves immersed in what Wolf calls deep reading. We can imagine these modes of reading existing on a spectrum of effort and care with many other points in between.
It would be a mistake to say that deep reading is the only kind of reading we should ever do.In fact, it would be absurd to think that. The problem, in my case, is that I am constantly engaged in modes of reading on only one side of that spectrum, which then habituate me to be resistant to forms of reading on the other end. As I began reading the novel I’m now close to finishing, it was difficult for me to get lost in the story. When I do read something that is intellectually demanding, I find my mind wandering from the page after only a few moments. I assume that by now this is just how most people feel about reading and that some may not even know that there is any other way. (Of course, I could just be consoling myself by projecting my own vices onto others.)
And it is not just that there are various kinds of texts, some more demanding and others less. It is also that the physical form of the text matters. The history of reading or the history of the book is instructive on this point. One of my favorite books about reading is Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, which is unfortunately rather hard to find. In it, Illich focuses on a very specific moment in the 12th century when a set of textual innovations changed the nature of the book and, thus, how we read. Consequently, Illich argued, these developments changed the whole intellectual culture of Western Europe. What were these innovations? They were seemingly trivial things like chapter headings, indices, and page layouts conducive to silent reading.Much of this had to do with facilitating random access to the text. The end result, in Illich’s view, was the sundering of the text from its material instantiation. In How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles sets out to tell the story of “how information lost its body.” For his part, Illich would say that this happened decisively in the 12th century when it became possible to conceive of something called the text separately from its instantiation in the material form of a book. “The page,” Illich observed, “lost the quality of soil in which words are rooted.”
All of our reading today happens under the shadow of this development. For example, we tend to think of a text as something that can be variously instantiated in book form or on a computer screen or on an e-reader or listened to as an “audio book.” And, of course, it can be. The problem is the further inference that how a text is materially instantiated is a matter of indifference. It is not. The form a text takes is not neutral, rather it changes our experience of the text. Or, to put it another way, the material form of the text mediates our relationship to the text.
Once again, Wolf and Klein supply a useful example of how this is the case. The book makes it trivially easy to go back to a previous sentence or paragraph or page while we are reading. When reading a difficult text or a dense narrative, for example, we may find ourselves flipping back from time to time to recall a certain detail or to reassemble the author’s argument. In theory, it is possible to do the same with an e-reader or even with an audio book, but the affordances of those forms do not lend themselves to that kind of backtracking. My point is not that this always matters. My point is only that sometimes it does. Other examples include the sorts of cues the book offers to the embodied mind—visual placement on a page or the shifting weight of one side of the book against the other as we make our way through it—which subtly scaffold our comprehension and retention. And, of course, the book is not also the gateway to countless other forms of media the way a smartphone, tablet, or even internet-connected e-reader might be. In these ways, the affordances of the book might be uniquely suited to sustaining deep reading.
Contrary to the assumption of neutrality of form, I'm tempted to argue that it is the content which is a matter of indifference and that what is really important in the long run is the form of engagement elicited by the medium. Of course, that is a hyperbolic way of putting it, but the form of engagement over time does condition us. It instills certain habits of mind and shapes our sensibilities. At the very least, we should be mindful about pairing the kind of reading we set out to do with the most appropriate material form.
“Bookish reading can now clearly be recognized as an epochal phenomenon and not as a logically necessary step in the progress toward the rational use of the alphabet; as one mode of interaction with the written page among several; as a particular vocation among many, to be cultivated by some, leaving other modes to others.”
— Ivan Illich
Reading under the rule of technique
Of course, it was Bankman-Fried’s derisive comments that most irritated the bookish types among us. I don’t want to take the provocation too seriously, but I suspect his views are rather widely held.What he expresses can perhaps be understood as reading under the regime of technique.
Technique, in Jacques Ellul's sense, appears as the imperative to optimize for efficiency. That much is evident here. Why can't a book be a six paragraph blog post? This is just another way of asking why can’t I do this faster and with less effort. Why should I take hours to arrive at a point which could be conveyed to me in a few minutes? But I’d argue that the deeper problem, also related to technique, is the unstated assumption that the point of reading is always information transfer.That someone might read for the sake of aesthetic pleasure or in order to see some sliver of the world through the eyes of another or to cultivate certain capacities or even virtues seems not to enter into the picture at all. What's more, it's not even knowledge acquisition that's in view. It's more like the mere acquisition of disparate data points.
At this point it would be convenient to conclude that this was just another example of Bankman-Fried’s hubris, shallowness, or evident lack of character. But that might let many of us off the hook too easily. Like White, some will want to link this attitude to the crypto bros or tech bros. Those with more humanist sensibilities might be tempted to associate the attitude even more broadly with the STEM disciplines. But my sense is that this way of thinking about reading is much more widely distributed, although it may take slightly different forms. I think of those who might be tempted by what Alan Jacobs in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction has called “reading to have read,” reading for the sake of the prestige that might attach to it or reading certain books because one feels obligated to do so, etc.
In these cases, reading is merely instrumental. It is good insofar as it is useful for the sake of some goal that is unrelated to the practice of reading itself. There are many reasons to read and many ways to read. Each may have its place. Sometimes we will read merely to absorb some bit of information. 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.
It’s worth acknowledging at this juncture that the skimming sort of reading that has become our default can be understood as a coping mechanism. Flooded with text, we are compelled to adopt modes of reading that keep us from drowning. I find it useful in this context to occasionally remind myself that I cannot read everything and that it would not be good for me to try. Better, perhaps, to read fewer things well. As is often the case, acknowledging and embracing our limitations can be freeing.
“Ever fewer people come to the book as a harbor of meaning. No doubt, for some it still leads to wonder and joy, puzzlement and bitter regret, but for more—I fear—its legitimacy consists in being little more than a metaphor pointing toward information.”
— Ivan Illich
Reading as a counter-practice
Let me wrap this up by proposing that we think of reading as a valuable counter-practice. Or, rather, that we at least sometimes think of reading as a valuable counter-practice. By counter-practice, I mean a deliberately chosen discipline that can form us in ways that run counter to the default settings of our techno-social milieu.
I mentioned earlier that I struggled to make my way through the novel I was reading when I first took it up. This lasted for a while, but eventually I found that I was reading for longer stretches and that I was able to focus more sharply. It took some time, but eventually I even found myself lost in the story. And, as a consequence, I felt that I was able to think more clearly and perhaps even imaginatively, as if a fog had been lifted. (I wonder how often we are in a kind of fog because we have allowed our minds to aimlessly, frenetically, and perpetually dart from one thing to another, disrupting our mind’s capacity to form memories and generate meaning.) I also enjoyed a measure of satisfaction that never comes from, say, scrolling my Twitter feed or even scanning a few informative articles online. My life was not changed, but it was modestly improved.
I don’t want to romanticize the act of reading or wax nostalgic for “the book.” But I do want to acknowledge the fact that our practices matter and the material form of the artifacts that mediate those practices matters, too. There is much to be learned about the world apart from reading, and reading difficult texts is no guarantee of good character, etc. But reading at length, and for pleasure or wisdom, does have its rewards and consolations. And in the event that, like me, you may have lost sight of this, I commend the practice to you.
W.H. Auden: “When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one.”
We take it for granted that when people read they do so silently. This was not at all the case for nearly two millennia. And why would it be? Reading, especially reading alphabetic writing, is first and foremost the rendering of sound into symbols. It has a family resemblance to a score of music. There is, of course, the canonical example of Augustine’s surprise at encountering Ambrose reading silently in his study. As late as the 11th century, the pages of the book could be referred to as the “sounding pages” and monks as “mumblers” for their practice of vocalizing what they were reading.
Following Illich’s example, I argued a few years ago that a similar thing happened in the shift from photograph to image.
In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs cites the following comments reported by Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital: “I don’t read books per se. I go to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly. Some of this comes from books. But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all the information I need faster through the web.” Those were the words of a Rhodes Scholar and then president of the student government at his university.
Notice, too, the further presumption that the information, like a “text,” is an immaterial reality which can be variously instantiated without remainder.
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.