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October 28, 2009

CAAF: The new rules of engagement

This weekend I realized how much my reading habits have come to resemble my Internet-surfing. I skip from book to book, dipping in, skimming and grazing, as if each book were an article I was reading online. If the book isn't amazing, I rarely get past the first quarter -- let alone finish it. Of course, at least once in a while, I'm abandoning the book out of shrewish old age. I have less patience for terrible books than I used to. But most of the time, I have to admit, it's not the books that are bad, it's me: I've become a terrible reader.

The first, most obvious reason: Online reading has trained my eyes to be more peripatetic on the page. The favored online writing style is zippy and fast - you get the takeway even as your attention is skittering away, onto the next link. The other night as I was reading, I noticed my eyes were shifting up and down the page, instead of left to right, a sign that I read more on a monitor most days than on a page, but also a symptom that I was out of condition for any sort of complicated sentence: "Where's your kicker, Henry James? Your bullets? Your boldfaced exclamations?" And my brain was roving around just as much as my gaze was: mentally rummaging in the kitchen cupboards (chips?), wondering if I had any new email (probably not), and brooding on my petty jealousies and everyday activities (endless).

The above has been well recorded in many places. With the next, I wonder if it's strictly personal, or if others of you have noticed this about yourselves too. It's the observation that the Internet for all its virtues -- and let me interject here and say that I love the Internet, some of my best friends are the Internet, etc. -- has given me an overly inflated sense of my own ability to learn and appreciate new things. I've always liked to read several books at once (do you want to read a book about volcanoes tonight, or a novel? Who knows? Better have them both with you!), EvilWillow.jpgbut this weekend I counted and I had some twenty books in different stages of being read around the house, ones I felt I couldn't bear to return to the library or put back on their proper shelves because "I'm reading it." I've fallen into the habit of bringing a stack of three to four into bed with me at night -- picking them up from around the house as I turn off lights like a grocery shopper ambling through the produce section picking whatever pretty fruit strikes the fancy. On the one hand, thus has it always been -- people who like books will have books in their bed, will have far more books on their reading list than they will ever finish, etc. On the other, I think when you casually read a couple hundred little news items, interesting posts and articles online in day, it get frightfully easy to carry a glib sense of engagement away with you from the computer -- to want to click along to the next book whenever you're bored. And on some deeper level, I wonder if the Internet with its ready and immediate access to anything I want to know, has given me a false sense that I'm capable of knowing it, i.e., that I can suck in all that knowledge like Evil Willow draining books at the magic shop. Even as my reading habits have gotten sloppier, have I come to think I'm someone who's capable of reading three or four books before bed? That I'll wake up and suddenly be the man who knew everything? Put another way: If the Internet is infinite, has it made me forget that I'm finite?

herman.jpgAgain, none of these are new habits of mind, but they feel exaggerated by my Internet use. So it's with sorrow but determination that I announce I'm signing off of it forever. Ha ha, just kidding! But what I am doing is orchestrating a new reading regime, a sort of course correction, to make myself a better reader offline. I've used this system in the past when I felt like my Gemini brain had gotten disorderly, and it's worked well. It's to read one author and one author only for a month. No leaping around within the oeuvre, either. It's one book at a time. Front to back. After a lot of thought and vacillation, I've decided November is Herman Melville month. Nothing but Herman until December.* So good-bye, Orlando, Lolly Willowes, Daniel Deronda, and Oryx and Crake; goodbye, Werner Herzog in Brazil and fascinating academic book about Russian Byronism; goodbye, Rebecca Solnit and Randall Jarrell; good-bye, promising if potentially infuriating book** about Charlotte and Emily Bronte's Belgian school essays; good-bye I Lost It At The Movies; and even you, Nabby, good-bye. You're all wonderful, but I will see you later.

* Allowable exceptions: My bookclub book for this month, Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided; the rest of Sarah Hrdy's Mother Nature (I'm almost through!); and any research books for the novel. But with the latter the same one at a time rule applies.

** Complete non sequitur but: I've noticed this trend among Bronte scholars to be snide about Charlotte, as if in order to properly appreciate Emily (or even Anne or Branwell) it were somehow necessary to knock Charlotte down several pegs. Juliet Barker, author of an otherwise excellent biography, I'm looking at you. And Elizabeth Hardwick, you too (except I love you so I'm not looking that hard). This makes me furious. Some day, I tell you ... well, I'll storm into a Bronte Society Meeting and create quite a scene.

UPDATE: Oh, the Internet. No sooner did I prepare this post then I saw The Elegant Variation has started a discussion on this same topic, using this essay by David Ulin as a jumping-off point.

Posted October 28, 2009 12:01 AM

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