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Just browsing: on books & the internet April 10, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in books, communication, consumer, internet, language, learn, life, technology.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

booklover's dream

My visit to a bookstore yesterday has me questioning one of my assumptions about myself: that I love books.

Well, I do genuinely love the idea of books, the musty smell of a three-story used bookstore, the crisp riffle of freshly printed pages, the way that soft-shelled penguin paperback opens at random when you drape it over your hand… One of my fantasy rooms is a library with tall windows, a comfy chair, and walls lined with books on every subject (I’m undecided as to whether there should be a butler carrying in a glass of sherry in the mid-afternoon).

I’ve read quite a few books — besides the required school textbooks, I’ve read lots of science fiction, mysteries, biographies, short stories and Canadiana, along with classics such as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Homer’s The Odyssey. But, increasingly, I tend to pick up books that look intriguing, but then I don’t get around reading them, or I start and don’t finish (with the exception of mysteries, where sometimes I’ll skip the middle part and rush through to the end so I can get to sleep before 2 a.m.).

So there I was yesterday, leafing through a sale copy of John Ralston Saul’s The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World — and thinking, oh, how interesting — when suddenly I stopped and said sternly to myself, “Myself, you are not going to read that book. You are going to leaf through it, dip into a few chapters, then put it aside until you have more time, which will likely be never.”

Alas, another fantasy smashed on the cold tile floor in the kitchen of logic. I felt a sense of loss, then wondered if the internet is to blame.

Because I do read more than ever if you count the internet. I read constantly online, or perhaps I should say I mostly “scan”, because I only stop to read more than a few words when I find something that truly catches my imagination. And, all too often, I even put off that reading to “another time”, bookmarking the page for more leisurely digestion when I can give it my full attention.

Except it appears that I have no, uh… what was I saying? Oh yes, no attention span; it seems to have evaporated. Yet can I legitimately blame the internet for its ability to provide instant information and make me too impatient to bother reading a book?

The surveyors of society are currently claiming that the reading of books is increasing, not decreasing, notwithstanding the naysayers and Steve Jobs’ recent comment (“the fact is that people don’t read anymore”). I would say that about half the people I see riding the subway or in waiting rooms are reading.

So what do you think: are you reading less? Or are you just reading differently?

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Related Links:
Newsweek: “The Future of Reading”
Guardian UK: “Dawn of the Digital Natives”
New York Times: “Book Lust”



1. lavenderbay - April 11, 2008

I think those three special little words could sum up this entry: “can of worms”. It isn’t, to me, a simple question of computers versus paperbacks.
Do you work in an office? If so, you’re likely looking at a screen more than at hard copy.
A lot of classics are in the public domain, and you can find them on specialized web sites.
How tired are you after work? Maybe you just want to escape the printed word for a while.
Do you ever play SimCity or simulated war games for hours on end? If so, you’re demonstrating a huge attention span.
Does your pleasure in reading come from the information you gather, or the music of the language? If you omit entire chapters in your mystery novels, maybe you prefer information gathering.
How much does “book-as-artifact” factor into your bookshop purchases? I would guess that what’s displayed on one’s bookshelf speaks volumes (!) about how that person chooses to identify himself or herself.
What, to you, is the esthetic value of a bound book? A living room with nothing but a couch and a laptop looks a little stark.
(Wow, my brain appears to be on overdrive today!)
Obviously, you’ve posted an entry that presents much food for thought.

2. Shaw - April 11, 2008

Gillian, thank you for your post. As I type this comment, I look hesitantly at the pile of books nearby, the books that have been sitting for months, some years, waiting to be read, collecting dust and growing hairs. Sure, I will change the location of the pile, maybe even downsize it occasionally, but the truth is I have often purchased books because they felt at the time like sources of inspiration, a souvenir from a mind trip I took at one point or another into thoughts of a particular kind of life for myself. Once the fantasy fades out, a particular book’s relevancy does, too. Perhaps this process is an act of distraction, an archaic version of what the internet offers: immediate, seemingly infinite opportunities to distract myself from what is going on inside me, from my most authentic internal landscapes, those paths that deserve so much more of my attention.

3. eyegillian - April 11, 2008

Well, you’ve listed a pile of different factors to take into account, Lavenderbay! I guess I mostly read for information, although I do enjoy the pleasure of words, especially with poetry, for example, which paints acute observations of life in a few brilliant brushstrokes. But poetry is more meditative; during most reading I’m surging through the words, following the trail of meaning, anticipating ahead of the writer the point or plot of the story. And yes, I do enjoy computer games, at least until mastery, then my interest ebbs…

And thank you, Shaw, for telling about the pile of books that marks the changes in your life and your “mind trips”. I’m glad you understand about the fantasy of books, the way they reflect a turn of mind… which just as quickly can turn another direction. Reading is, of course, an escape and a distraction, but I suppose what you choose (even if it remains unread) can be quite “telling”…!

4. paula - April 18, 2008

At last – I’m catching up on some of your posts…and my books!! I read veraciously and feel quite unsettled when I can’t, due to pressure of work, family etc. etc.
I guess I read for pleasure, escape, relaxation, fascination, amazement and also to learn how others write and why some books grab me completely while others I struggle with.
The highlight of being stuck in NY airport for several hours was the opportunity to browse bookshops and American literature – it’s so different from ours. Not only the writing but the books themselves – I think I came back with around twelve or so and have learnt so much from their differences.
For me the internet/computers pushes me to write – to clarify my thoughts and develop writing skill. Though I waste hours of time researching on the net.

5. eyegillian - April 18, 2008

Thanks for your comment, Paula! Like you, I find the internet makes me want to work harder at my writing, and I do all my research online. Too often, however, I’m missing out on the chance to just sit and read a good book. I’m beginning to think that being stuck in a New York airport would be a good thing!

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