From The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkets:
A change is upon us—nothing could be clearer. The printed word is part of a vestigial order that we are moving away from—by choice and by societal compulsion. I’m not just talking about disaffected academics, either. This shift is happening throughout our culture, away from the patterns and habits of the printed page and toward a new world distinguished by its reliance on electronic communication.
This passage prompted me to think about my own relation to digital text, printed words, and the act of reading itself, so here are a few thoughts:
I’ve always been a Reader with a capital R. I grew up with a lot of books in the house, and from a young age, my parents made sure I understood the importance of reading widely and with intent. But what does it mean to read? How do you go about it? Of course, reading means different things to different people. Maybe you read novels, comics, academic journals, or periodicals and the like. No matter the form, expectations of how you read are different from medium to medium.
My guess is that you don’t read text messages in the same way that you read The Atlantic, and you don’t read The Atlantic in the same way you read a hardcover copy of War and Peace, and you probably don’t read War and Peace in the same way that you read Harry Potter on an e-reader. I won’t go full McLuhan, but the medium is the message and the medium shapes the mind.
I’ve come to terms with the idea that I don’t read on screens. At least not the kind of careful and thorough reading that I enjoy. I’ve always viewed text on screen as superficial. In most cases, digital text delivers itself to us in short-form streams: we skim, scan, and skip through the text from one ephemeral sentence to another. Reading on screens is in direct opposition of memory-making, of meaning-making, of understanding. Hell, I don’t remember most of what read online. A lot of digital content is throwaway—it isn’t meant for longterm memory. So for better or worse, I approach digital text as a uninterested user, not as an attentive reader. I ingest words on screens only so that I can accomplish tasks—"reading" online is a means to an end.
Also worth noting: One of the most disappointing aspects of text on screens is that it almost always looks bad. Typography on the web has come a long way, but it is not a practice that people take time to get right. I think this is another reason why I turn away from reading long-form articles online, even when the writing is good.
On the other hand, my relation to printed words is very different. I pay the same kind of close attention to my reading habits as I do my nutrition habits—both seem like meaningful areas of one’s life to scrutinize and explore. Physical books are great source of pleasure for me. Language, dialog, form, typography all come together on the page. If I am to truly grasp what I'm reading, I’ve got to bring my whole self to the book.
Put another way, I treat book reading as an event. It’s an activity I have to intellectually, physically, and emotionally prepare for. I read cover to cover with sustained concentration. It is slow going, immersive, and so satisfying. I cannot achieve a similar reading experience online. But maybe you can?
For me, here’s the key thing: Reading from the screen and reading from the printed page are not the same. I am not saying that one method of reading is better than the other—they each have their purpose. What I am saying is that to do the kind of reading I enjoy, the kind of reading that makes me happy, I need a physical book in hand. The way I see it, printed words hold a better quality of attention than words on screen.
From Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure by Richard Byrd:
I don’t try to force myself to sleep, as I sometimes do at home. My whole life here is an experiment in harmony, and I let the bodily processes achieve a natural equilibrium. As a rule, it doesn’t take me long to go to sleep. But a man can live a lifetime in a few half-dreaming moments of introspection between going to bed and falling asleep: a lifetime reordered and edited to satisfy the ever-changing demands of the mind.
I realize now that I’ve made a mistake in selecting this passage as my first writing prompt. Byrd’s reflection is full of truth, which I find difficult to capture and examine with words. We’ve all had similar moments of idle inwardness, where life is reordered, where sacred truths are made known, where we “see” differently. These experiences give us a heightened sense of things—palpable feelings of connectedness to the people and world around us.
It's easy to dismiss this kind of thinking as cliché, New Age woo. But no matter where or how these transitory moments occur, I think they deserve serious examination. They’re a vehicle for making sense of one’s present state of mind.
Books that came to mind...
From The Invention of Nature, Alexander Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wolf:
Humboldt had always walked, from his boyhood rambles in Tegel’s forests to his trek through the Andes. Even as a sixty-year-old, he had impressed his travel companions in Russia with his stamina, walking and climbing for hours. Voyages on foot, Humboldt said, taught him the poetry of nature. He was feeling nature by moving through it.
For me, being alone and “out there” in nature, where my senses are fully awake, is a counterbalance to engaging with the world through a trackpad. Hiking, running, scrambling for hours—duration and intensity lead to a positive and creative state of mind that I have trouble accessing without regular treks through the mountains. For the longest time I felt that I could hike my way to happiness.
All that said, I’ve started to drift away from hiking as a physical practice, because I cannot ignore the ongoing destruction of our natural parks and public lands. I'm part of the problem. You're part of the problem. We are all part of the damn problem. I’m talking about excessive tourism and over-crowding, noise pollution, vandalism, trampled vegetation, streams saturated with synthetic waste, logging, drilling, and abundant litter scattered from the parking lot to the tundra tree line. I once found a heap of trash at 12,000 feet, only a few hundred steps below the summit. There were bags of cans, bottles, tape, condoms, human waste, spent fuel canisters, syringes, plastic wrap, and prepackaged meal wrappers spread across the trail. Leave No Trace has become nothing more than a slogan.
The trail compels you to know yourself and to be yourself, and puts you in harmony with the universe. It makes you glad to be living. It gives health, hope, and courage, and it extends that touch of nature which tends to make you kind. — Enos Mills
We all want to be closer to Nature. We want to see the mountains, smell the pine, taste the air, and soak in the earthly stuff that radiates from the wild. But as long as we continue to live thinking that nature exists only to support our interests, our own wellbeing, we will continue to degrade the natural world, and our natural parks will cease to exist. I don’t mean to end on such a bleak note, but it’s getting harder to maintain hope that our children will have an opportunity to walk the lands and to learn the poetry of nature as we have done throughout our lives.