On Reading Habits and the Information Superhighway

I once again fail at refraining from joining in the clusterfuck that is the left-wing DC-based blogosphere, because both Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to a third blog post, which fears that Twitter will bring about the demise of American literary culture, by discussing their own reading habits. And I, Millenial Twitterer Facebooker college student—a representative of an age group allegedly more networked and less able to stay focused on a whole novel than the age groups from which Yglesias and Coates hail—felt obliged to weigh in on my own reading habits as well.

Now, my perspective does come with some bias: over the weekend, I pressed the fatal command-Q on my Twitter client, aware that the little blue-glowing notification icon in the upper-right corner of my screen was distracting me from writing grant applications. It’s a terrible thing when you can’t get through a sentence because you feel like an icon is forcing you to switch windows and attend to some all-important piece of information that probably isn’t really that important after all, and is certainly no more important than applying for summer funding. If anything, this is the problem with the social-networking information superhighway: not that it is a non-literary or non-literate form of communicating, but that it creates for the user an obligation to make that icon stop glowing blue, or to keep the number of unread items in Google Reader down to zero. (Yes, I definitely did just look at my Google Reader tab, note that the tab read “Google Reader (8),” and clicked over to start reading the 8 unread items before I realized the irony of the situation.) These unread counts, and the immediacy they demand, are, I think, a problem—because they distract us from other things that surely deserve just as much of our time and attention. I feel as if I must read my new tweets because if I wait ten minutes to send my friend an @-reply, it will be too late—but then what does that do to the intellectual resources I’m devoting to understanding some aspect of my schoolwork?

It’s not as if I don’t read a lot: I am, after all, an undergrad history major with a more-than-passing interest in English literature. I read. A lot. Hundreds of pages a week, in fact, and I did that before I quit Twitter and I do it now, because I have to. I won’t do as well in my classes if I don’t read, and I won’t be as educated a person if I don’t read. Being well-read is in fact so vitally important to my sense of self-respect that reading is one of the most important things that I do. And while I must make time in my day for Google Reader, I must also make time in my day for Wilde and Marx and Milton. It’s a moral necessity, and in the long view a far more pressing one than whether I’ve read everything that the left-wing blogosphere has to say about the latest development in the 24-hour news cycle. In as much as I am a representative of my generation, fully wedded to the wonder that is the Internet, I couldn’t exist without the Western literary canon (though that is not to diminish the value of the non-Western canon) either.

Furthermore, I’ll go so far as to say that the problem with Luddite and anti-Luddite screeds is that they set up a binary prizing an increasingly minority print culture on the one hand versus a dynamic digital information culture on the other—but the two can, of course, coexist. Perhaps reading on your Kindle saves paper (I know I’ve stopped printing out my pdf readings as a way to be more environmentally friendly); perhaps you read and write blogs and Twitter feeds about literary culture. And perhaps you can learn to negotiate which aspects of the Internet will help you, and which won’t. Perhaps you just need to learn when to turn off the constant presence of the Twitter feed.

I think we should all read more. I think we should all be better humanists. I think we should all resist the increasing trend towards specialization that pervades both the academy and the real world. But that in the end has little to do with Twitter, and much more to do with how we use media like it. It has little to do with the existence of technology, and more to do with whether and how we can negotiate how and why we use it. As long as we’re thoughtful about it, and don’t let it eclipse entirely the necessities of cultural literacy and literary self-education, its role in our lives—whatever our age group—is an essentially unalarming one.

2 thoughts on “On Reading Habits and the Information Superhighway

  1. Frankly I think that the whole old media vs new media debate misses the point entirely. The new media (twitter &c) are not excuses to read; they are excuses to write. Even when we are reading things online we are only doing it (almost as a rule) so that we can write a response. Reading new media is a form of writing. You say this yourself in your description of your Twitterfeed addiction. I am verifying it by commenting on your blog. When we read a novel, we are very rarely using the text as a writing tool. So to say that new media distract from old media is like a more historical (but equally dysfunctional) version of saying that writing in your journal distracts from reading a book.

  2. I do feel like that’s variable, because as someone who reads a lot for class and who writes a lot outside of class, most of my reading (whether books or blogs) translates directly into writing. But yes, I think your point still holds, and is a very good one.

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