Thursday, July 05, 2007

Momentary Reflection

A trend over the last few months: I've noticed that overall I'm seeing fewer films, something that tends to happen annually as the weather gets warm. But more than this, lately, I notice that I tend to watch in splurges. Three or even four films in a day (I've had two triple bills recently, one at MoMA and one at the home videotheque); or no films all week long but then several over a weekend.

Otherwise I spend my time reading more. I find I go through cycles where I'm afflicted with something probably vaguely comparable to attention deficit disorder. I don't know what to read, what I want to read, so I tend to read shorter things--articles, reviews--and I skim longer works ("a little Benjamin, then the critical introduction to this Balzac novel...") Then this passes and I can knock out several books in quick succession, on top of the other articles and essays and skimming.

One of the solo joys of life is finishing a book in a day or two, something I can't always do even when I'm blessed with a windfall of free time. My most fortuitous convergence of necessary free time and a willingness to read, with focus, came on a flight from Italy back to New York. I knocked out Death in Venice (including a few critical appendices in the Norton) and The Baron in the Trees.

* * *

I mention all this because I'm curious about people's reading habits, how they feel they've changed with the advent of websurfing. As much as I love my computer and all the Internets it's really reconfigured my time management when it comes to devoting time to reading print. It's not that I read much less print, it's that I read it in smaller chunks of time.

Which, of course, is not always the best way to read!

I know there's got to be a mountain of journalistic and scholarly literature devoted to this question. And maybe I'll get to some of it (five minutes at a time). But in light of Matt's announcement that he has to write shorter pieces because long paragraphs are problematic for surfers, I do have to say that some of the most important and formative things I came across on the Internet were long and sometimes difficult-to-follow pieces which I had to work at, chip away at on that computer monitor, mouse click by mouse click, revisitations and all. Some examples that taught me about radical politics, for good or for ill--words on life from a political prisoner, or some sites from an online Leninist activist; or we cannot forget the Movie Mutations letters, which I first stumbled across online, connected to UC-Berkeley I think, where I read and re-read these long and personal reflections on love and theory and friendship (themselves texts too, on "discovery"), understanding a little more each time I visited the letters anew. At the age of 16 or 17 or so, sitting at the computer in my room before I went to bed on school nights, this was an intellectual education I simply wasn't getting in school. And the very long, graphics-lite essays were as integral a part of my "online learning" (and my learning to be online) as were the more hyped choppiness of digital interactions on message-boards, through email and IM, and so on. What the Internet did for me was not decrease my willingness to engage with long and complex texts: what it did was condition me (or allow myself to be conditioned) to approach almost anything as a text which I could split into discrete units and read utterly at my leisure. That had never occured to me before; one read for a certain amount of time: until the chapter was over, until there was something else that needed immediate attention, or until the time to read was up. But to read something for not even 5-10 minutes, or to reading part of something very long for only 15-20 minutes ... and then just stop and move onto something else altogether? I can't remember thinking that way until the Internet came around.

* * *

Lately I've been turning the computer off at home more often, which has boded well for time management. I fear that the ability to Google almost any new topic that interests me could become a huge crutch if it hasn't already.

* * *

Of course, I'm also in the middle of cat-sitting for several weeks, and this cat we have as a houseguest has taken a big liking to me. And when she's not sleeping, she's very jealous of time I spend paying attention to anything but her ... that includes the computer.


David McDougall said...

I certainly have become and 'internet reader,' one who hyperlinks freely, reads 17 articles at once, and digests discrete chunks more frequently than in-depth pieces. I of course save the longer pieces to return to later, but more often than not I find that this return is perpetually delayed as I navigate the infinite smaller posts that can be digested immediately. This trading of significant reflection for momentary reflection doesn't necessarily imply a lack of depth, however; I am often given more room for thought by a piece that only hints at truths than I am by one that actually argues them. That's an approach I try to take with my shorter posts - pointing the reader towards an idea rather than leading the reader to one. I like the possibility that a writer can spur thought by simply suggesting something, which of course is a quality I look for in films as well.

ZC said...

'17 articles at once'--yes definitely! Open window-itis characterizes a lot of my surfing too.

I wonder if this kind of discrete suggestiveness is part of why Benjamin and his Arcades Project especially have skyrocketed into the canon of English-speaking intellectual culture: because the big translation came in '99, right, and he's such an "unassailable" figure now, partly because elements of his structuring, his occasional pithiness and constant suggestiveness, are so easily readable (if never quickly digestible) because of the way the online intelligentsia have changed their reading habits. Just an idle thought.

I'm in agreement with you about the value of suggestion, though.

Darren said...

After abandoning academia, I was forced to spend a lot of effort convincing friends and relatives that all of those years in graduate school weren't wasted -- that, in fact, I would forever be grateful for having spent all of my 20s reading, writing about, and teaching great books. As maddening as it was at the time, I now get nostalgic for the 18 months I spent preparing for my comps, when my "job" was to read a novel, a collection of stories, or a selection of essays every day and to boil down all that I'd learned onto a 4x6 index card.

Now, honestly, I average a novel a month, maybe a bit more if I spend enough time on airplanes. Most of my concentrated reading is limited to the last 30-45 minutes of the day. When the weather's nice, I try to print out a long essay to read during my lunch hour, or I'll drag along one of the 20 books I have checked out from the university library. Sadly, I typically end up skimming most of the books. The Internet has definitely degraded my attention span as a reader.

HarryTuttle said...

Isn't the multi-windowing a consequence of blogs hyperlink seeding? Along our reading we are invited to open one, two, more windows before the article is over. And since it's a reference the writer assumes as acquirred knowledge by the reader, we are forced to abandon our reading to catch up with these references.
Incidentally, footnotes in a book don't distract as much.

Another crazy behavior caused by the internet I discovered is that when I skim, in a hurry, unknown blogs with merely interesting stuff, I read the posts from the bottom up. To get an idea of the conclusions and find out the level of interest and what the subject before dedicating time to it. I often read comments before the body of the post. The type of reactions an article foster tell quicker about the quality of writing of the post.
These are bad habits and unorthodox. And I'd say it's because we can't rely on online publishing the same way we can trust the press, which has a quality threshold to meet before publication. And blogs are indifferentiated, goods and bads have the same outlook. And post titles are seldom descriptive or representative of the content.
So we have to find tricks elsewhere that tell if the blog or the post is worthy. We can't of course read everything just to make sure...

Anonymous said...

I agree with Harry Tuttle's comment about the links in a page leading to other pages, leaving the reader with mnay open windows. It is even worse when there are links within links - a chinese box of essay after essay!

I find I read less printed material too, and more on the Internet. But I do usually set some time aside, usually on Sundays, to relax with a book and prepare for the coming week sat at my computer.

I don't find my attention span has decreased reading essays on the Internet than in print as I was never that fast a reader! Books others finished in days took me months to complete, though it is the journey rather than the completion that counts I suppose!

Perhaps a bigger factor that contributed to my reading less books and more Internet material was when my local library reduced borrowing periods from a full month to two and a half weeks. I never usually finished an entire book in a full month, but that amount of time allowed me to at least get to the point where I wanted to re-borrow it, with the new borrowing periods I felt much more pressure was placed on me to finish the damn book and get it back!

I also have found the Internet invaluable for letting me discover subjects I might never have even considered reading about before. Compared to going to a library or the particular section of a bookshop with what you prefer to read and choosing as many of those you can because you only have a limited amount of money or number of items you are allowed to borrow, everything is available all the time electronically and then it truly comes down to personal interests and time to study them than other factors.

It doesn't stop me having interests (for example I often try to read anything to do with cinema), but if I wanted right now to read something on Native American history, work by philosophers, or tips on gardening I'm sure they would be there if I made a search. The quality of the contents might need to be considered more critically than a published book, but at least it would be an introduction to the subjects.

The great, and scary, thing about the Internet is that it has removed the barriers that many people felt safe behind. We aren't able to employ the same excuses any more for not knowing about something - it comes down to lack of interest and lack of time to study rather than lack of resources or lack of access.

A lot of people are trying to keep up with this barrage of information and that might have contributed to shorter attention spans as people are often skimming quickly and trying to just gather the salient points before moving on to the next piece. However there is something to be said for taking the time to read and understand something properly to fully digest the ideas, or even read the article a few times (especially for a slow reader like me) - it might seem to slow you down in your surfing but it can often help in the long run, especially when a lot of similar information is repeated using different wording in different articles!

Ryland Walker Knight said...

This weekend I'm supposed to read Frege's "On Sense and Reference" plus the preface and the first 88 sections of Philosophical Investigations. I'm tackling the reading word by word. In general I've always made time to read books. But it's true I read more books when I rode a subway train to and from work, for roughly 40 minutes each way, five days a week. That has not deterred me from amassing -- counted them -- 11 books on my table. Only one of which is an assigned text (the Wittgenstein) and only four of which have I spent much time with, in earnest.

Then there's this: I've been writing longer and longer grafs but it's true that my online editors want 'em shorter. Oh well. I don't think the line breaks hurt the work; rather, they make it easier to read, especially on a computer.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I have "learned ADD," too. And I do exactly what you describe, Zach: I WANT to watch/read something, but I'm just too scattered. Then I hunker down and plow through several books and/or movies at a time.

The way I read links, however, is much like the way I read footnotes. I don't look at them until the end of the page (or even the end of the article). Since links open whole new pages, I usually go back to those (or don't even open 'em) until I'm done with the article I'm reading. I use links in my own stuff to point out references some readers may not be aware of, to provide back-up documentation for things I cite, and as "subject for further research," in case somebody wants to dig deeper into a certain idea or subject. But I hope people don't interrupt themselves and fall into the "Chinese box" trap -- though I confess I do it more than I'd like.

As for "open window-itis," I set my browser to open links in a new tab rather than a new window. Makes the additional pages easier to handle. And I use the dictionary / thesaurus / encyclopedia functionalty of's free "1-Click Answers" software which (in the Mac version I have, at least) opens a small pop-up window whenever you key+click on ANY word or phrase on a page. It's easy to look something up without taking you away from the page you're reading.

And about those paragraphs: My background is in newspapers, where short paragraphs are the rule. I often write in much larger paragraphs and then just go back and try to find logical places to introduce breaks so that people don't get lost when they're reading on a computer screen. It's more a matter of visual aesthetics than anything else, I guess...

Anonymous said...

During school I found that the only way I could get through a single night's reading was reading any given thing in alternating half hour blocks or so--half hour on a novel, half hour struggling with theory, half hour with Milton and then back and forth again. Some of my friends questioned breaking the narrative "flow," but I found that constantly coming back to something with new eyes every hour or so really increased my concentration and retention of the given material.

One thing that I've noticed recently about my online reading habits is my continued desperate clinging to a physical page/piece of paper--I will print out anything that I feel deserves particular attention. Not very environmentally friendly, I'll admit, but in my defense I do keep nearly everything (I've compiled whole binders of internet writings). I think it's the habits of a lit major--I need to underline, write notes, etc.

And regarding cinematic splurges--I'm pretty similar in that I go through phases where I'm much more focused on reading and films are pushed to the margins of my attention, and then suddenly all I'll want to do is watch movies and don't pick up a book for days.

And I've got to say, as much as it has limited my blogging abilities, I've been grateful to not have the internet at my apartment. I still manage to waste more time than I'd like, and when I move again in several months cable will be going as well...


ZC said...

Thanks for responding, everyone, it's been good to catch up once I got back in town & back to the blogs.

Darren, I'm envious of your old "job" ...

Harry, I picked up the habit of keeping multiple windows open before I knew what a blog was; hyperlinking in earlier webpages & articles surely had something to do with it, but sometimes it would be purely voluntary. (My mind would alight on a tangent, or I'd want to open a new window to look up an unfamiliar reference in something else I was reading...)

Colinr, I am constantly checking out books from the library and not getting around to them--and then begins the dilemma of renewing them or just giving up and saying "another time, maybe." And there are plenty of long articles I have relished reading slowly, and repeatedly, online.

Geez, Ryland, that's a heavy reading list!

Jim, I often do what you do, regarding opening links and waiting until I'm done to reach them--my exceptions (and it happens often enough) are when the new window sheds light on something (term, concept, historical period, whatever) that I simply need to know more about to understand my original reading.

I've tried that consecutive 'chunking' of reading time, Jesse. I found that sometimes it worked serendipitously, but other times it fizzled because I succumbed to that quasi-ADD.

celinejulie said...

--What Jesse said about his school reading reminds me of my reading habit when I was a university student. At that time I tried to persuade myself to read some textbooks to prepare for an examination by giving myself a reward. That is—I would allow myself to read a Japanese comic book after I had finished reading some textbooks for 3 hours or so. At that time I felt as if reading textbooks was like walking through a desert. So I had to give myself an emotional or mental “oasis” in the form of a Japanese comic book. I found that this kind of thing worked well for me, alternating between reading textbooks and Japanese comic books. I can even say that I graduated from university with a great help from Shinohara Chie’s comic books.

--I also have to open many windows at the same time when I am using the internet. I have to open Yahoo, Flickr, two Thai webboards, my two blogs, my Thai friends’ blogs, my foreign friends’ blogs, imdb, google, and, and switching between all of these windows make me feel like a headache.

--Talking about long paragraphs reminds me of Acquarello’s writing. I like his writing very much. I think he is one of the best film critics around and I am addicted to his website. What I’m amazed at him is not only his film knowledge, but also his ability to write in long and rich sentences.

An example of Acquarello’s sentence (from his review on YESTERDAY GIRL):

“This contradictory behavior that is, at once, an all-too-ready admission of (factually verified) historical culpability and a trivialization of the consequences of its legacy reflects a culturally pervasive attitude, a tenuous co-existence between half-hearted acknowledgement and adamant denial that is encapsulated by the judge's curt dismissal in continuing the line of inquiry that raises the specter of the human tragedy (one that he, himself, has introduced out of apparent habit): a pre-emptive declaration of its particular - and implicitly broader - irrelevance towards the resurgence of an inclusive, tolerant, and transformed "New Germany".

As English is not my first language, I have to admit that I have to read many of his sentences 2-3 times before I can begin to understand them. That is not to say that I would prefer him to write in shorter sentences. No. What I’m trying to say is that reading his website doesn’t only provide me with great film knowledge, but it also gives me a chance to improve my English reading skills. :-)