Poring Over Print: the 5k of Reading?
Reading is hard. Seriously, reading is hard. I don't mean hard in the sense of working your way up and down the sometimes-impenetrable prose of James Joyce's Ulysses; I tried it myself, got lost somewhere on page two, and never went back. But Joycean labyrinths aside, as someone who has devoted his life to reading and writing, I've always enjoyed the physical act of reading, the communing of writer to reader via words. In particular, I love reading the often-forgotten books and/or magazines and/or newspapers of publishers long gone out of business. It's like the words were quietly waiting, ready to be rediscovered and enjoyed by fresh eyes. As a writer of history and nonfiction, these kinds of finds are a verbal feast, overflowing with new surprises and joys at every turn.
The Book on the Podium
Last year, while sucking in the Lincoln sites in Springfield, IL (as an Illinois resident, I'm required by state law to be a Lincoln geek) I stopped at the Old State Capitol building. When I entered the chamber of the 19th century state legislature, I stood on the podium where the Speaker of the House would have run the show. I took in the view of empty wooden seats and imagined what it must have looked like 100 or so odd years ago, with top-coated men talking noisily while sucking on cigars and firing gooey phlegm into spittoons. In the midst of this both admiring and disgusting recreation of the mind, I noticed a book on the podium, stuck in a little cubbyhole where they must have kept notes of some sort. The book was published during the late 1910s. It was a novel by some long-forgotten author, with the owner's name printed on the inside cover in tiny but efficient penmanship. I flipped open to the middle of the book and started reading. I'm glad I did. The writing was of the period, overflowing with once fashionable rhetorical flourishes now moldy to the modern reader. None of that mattered. A long-forgotten writer and a long-forgotten book, once so important to its owner that she wrote her name on the flyleaf, became new again, words so carefully crafted coming to life a century later when I opened it up and started reading.
A trip early last year made me realize just how hard the physical act of reading is to undertake for we readers of 2020s as opposed to our 1920s counterparts. Here's the anecdotal evidence, slim though it is: A few years ago I was waiting in the Midway Airport terminal in Chicago for my flight to Phoenix. I was devouring The New York Times Sunday Magazine, switching it off with Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man in the High Castle. I tend to juggle between multiple books, newspapers, and magazines; otherwise, I'd never get through all the things that I need to read. Besides, I enjoy careening between different reading materials. Taking a mental breather, I casually engaged in the voyeuristic art of people watching. The terminal was crowded, to be sure in those pre-COVID days, stuffed with passengers of all races and ethnicities, genders and generations. These differences aside, there was a common denominator to the mosaic. People's eyes were glued to screens. Little iPhones. Big iPads. Laptops galore. Everywhere I looked, the glow of screen lights illuminated faces as necks hunched over devices and eyes bugged out sucking in the stimulation. I did see two people holding books, but they weren't reading them; instead these passengers were working their phone screens intently. There was one exception, a middle-aged woman engrossed in her copy of New York Magazine. That's when it struck me: reading is hard work. Holding a book or magazine, then schlepping it around in a carry-on bag requires some dexterity. It's a lot to lug around, particularly if, like me, you've got multiple reading materials. I understand that I'm the odd man out here: in the hurly burly of an airport, it's much easier to have multiple books, magazines, or newspapers stored on a smartphone in your pocket or saved on a tablet poked into your carry-on bag. So, yes, eyes were glued to screens and reading, as opposed to the pair of travelers with unopened books.
But I had to ask myself: was anyone reading reading? I wasn't sure. A study published in Scientific American suggests that our brains are wired to comprehend reading material as topography, navigating our way through a page as we take in the words. Because books have finite space we can understand the boundaries as our eyes move from page to page, and thus we are more engaged. In contrast, unending scrolling through screens forces us to skim the words and eventually our eyes glaze over. Furthermore, the glare from screens can force our eyes to physically back off, unlike the more orb-friendly medium of paper that automatically draws us in. By those standards, Facebook and Twitter are ideal reading for small screens. Social media depends on quick comprehension and uncomplicated thoughts that don't require anything other than a cursory glance. The brain navigates those landscapes quickly, and then moves on to the next landmark. Ebooks and magazines are a little easier on the eye, but are still better for short term reading rather than long stretches. The differences between screen and paper are sort of like walking from the couch to the kitchen versus running a 5k race.
The Pas De Deux of Writer and Reader
Like I said: reading is hard work. Am I suggesting that people who engage with a smartphone to inform Facebook friends of flight delays, whilst soaking in posts of people screaming pro-and-con about politics, see the word "yummy!" as a status beneath someone's photo of a delectable dinner, or watch a shared video of adorable kitties bouncing on trampolines, are somehow inferior to traditional book and newspaper readers? I'm a snob, but I'm not that big a snob (I'd like to think that anyway). In fact, I have to plead guilty to the siren call of the screen myself. Wanting to react to this digital takeover of airport reading, I took notes for this blog post on my iPhone. I'm now writing this essay on a laptop rather than scribbling in Mead Notebook or pounding on a Royal Upright (oh, nostalgia!). And you and I are engaged in this conversation via a screen. Reading and reading habits have fundamentally changed. But in doing so, it seems like we've reduced what should be a healthy 5k to a few inconsequential steps between couch and kitchen. Better minds than me have thrashed this conundrum about, so I'll wrap it up with simple considerations. Reading is hard. Print is more engaging because it pulls you in, while skimming during scrolling doesn't require active engagement. For all the digital eye candy of ebooks, websites, and social media, I'll take the more complicated navigation of print anytime and anywhere, be it an old book poked away on a podium or juggling between a magazine and a novel in an airport waiting area. I want the hard work that reading demands. That said, don't ask me to give up my iPhone or iPad or MacBook Pro. I may be sanctimonious (okay, I am sanctimonious), but I'm no luddite either. And if you want to buy me a new MacBook Pro I'm open to receiving tribute.
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Copyright 2021 Arnie Bernstein