A Brief History of the Future of Reading
From page to screen to phone and back again
Sixteen years ago, I used a cellular phone for the first time. I remember this vividly because the call I placed was to my mother, and five years later she lost her ability to speak.
I didn’t know this would happen then. I was not really a frequent telephoner, and like most people in their twenties I was also of the belief that nothing significant in my life would change without my prior written consent.
So I was living then in an apartment in the Village without a telephone. A repairman from AT&T had visited a few times with a big orange plastic device, which he’d plug into the jack, then leave, satisfied the line worked. Moments later, the line would go dead again. After a while, I stopped trying to fix it.
Life without a phone didn’t bother me. My apartment was on a quiet block, and without a ringing phone it was quieter yet. Two painters lived across the street, and I used to watch them work perched on easels in adjoining rooms, like a mirrored portrait of artistic marriage. Their brushstrokes were so minute some days it appeared they’d hardly move at all for hours at a time.
My life was hardly more eventful. As a book critic for newspapers, my only job was to read books and write about them. At ten and two o’ clock, the UPS deliveryman would arrive with plastic crates full of galleys. I’d open the packages, pile the books into stacks, then shuffle back to my desk.
I was borrowing the Internet from a nearby building’s wireless signal, and when I had to write or read rather than email or use the Internet for research, I walked west on 10th Street to a cafe near Seventh Avenue. On the way over I’d look at buildings and daydream, browse the window at Three Lives, and begin to build a piece in my head. Then I’d sit down and work, often for four or five uninterrupted hours at a time.
It was on one of these outdoor errands when I phoned my mother. I’d reached a stopping point in whatever I was writing, so I ducked around the corner away from traffic, flipped the little plastic thing open, and dialed. Until this point, my mother’s voice had lived in just two places—in my memory, and in the air around her. The phone calls I’d made from landlines had all blurred together and become part of the interior space I thought of as myself.Time, whether it feels jittery or speeded up in the day-to-day world, slows down, elongates, in a good book.
Suddenly, there was her voice. She had an upstate New York accent, so even as she spoke about watching the afternoon news it sounded a bit like she’d been canning peas. She was as surprised by my midday call as I was by the uncanny feeling of holding her voice in my hand in the street. It seemed an enormous extravagance to her, to make a phone call this way, and I reassured her it wasn’t. So in the way with mothers and sons, if one is lucky, our conversation took on the short, brief texture of a romantic gesture—I just called to hear your voice—meaningful because it had no meaning. All while the city tilted by in my peripheral vision: men walking dogs, delivery trucks unloading, the opaque shapes of people stepping around me as I stood there imagining my mother in the kitchen, surrounded by newspapers my father would never throw away.
* * * *
So much has changed since then. There are the large things, and there are the small ones, and much as I would like to separate them, it is impossible to do so. My mother died five years ago and the only material evidence I have of her voice is a recording, made in 1984, the year my family moved to California. My father left first to set up the house and start his job, my parents corresponding those few months by tape cassette, since long distance calls were not yet cheap. They also wrote letters every other day.
I’ve listened to that recording just once, shocked by how much stronger my mother’s accent was than I remember—my name pronounced Jahn—marveling that the little kid in the background is my now 38-year-old little brother.
Not long after I received this little time capsule, my father sold the house and in one month emptied it of all those newspapers, along with the furniture, the phone and its endless cord, his golf clubs, my grandmother’s paintings, all the things that remained, the things that once felt like the real world, and are now evidence that it had once existed. A dozen boxes showed up at my apartment full of letters, a safe-sized Brother word processor, yellowing newspaper clippings, my letterman jacket, and an entire college library, full of books so earnestly underlined there are often whole pages which are yellow.
Much as I was glad to have these things, very little I unpacked from those boxes has a point in the world in which I now live. The newspaper my father used to hoard has closed down, cassettes are now only ironically cool, it’s far easier to hyper-note a digital text than to burn through magic markers highlighting a printed one, and a letterman jacket is only really useful on Halloween. Even if this is not as it should be, resisting the changes—embracing the self-denying pleasures of obsolescence—is a losing battle. Every generation watches habits, devices, and moreover, communication itself change with time.
Meanwhile, it is one definition of a generation these days that it claims to be uniquely experiencing what has come before it.
* * * *
Given this tendency, it’s worth a little detour at this point, to glance at the past 150 years to make a point. There has been an ongoing revolution in how we communicate, one so large I think if you were to create a time machine and propel a person from the 1870s to today they’d be shocked by the nature of our day-to-day lives.
It began with mail. The creation of organized postal services in England and America in the mid 19th-century changed the nature of space and time. No longer was someone on the other side of the country lost to time. With patience and a few pennies, you could reach them. Prior to this, letters had to piggyback on unreliable and often-robbed modes of transport.
The postcard was radical enough to spawn a craze in quick, short communication, so much so there were jeremiads in newspapers against the evils of postcard use. When that craze died down there was a boon in letter writing, and columnists—mostly men—again railed against the sending of too many letters.
It is worth noting that in these days, a man’s secretary was called his typewriter. Because that was the instrument she used.
If the network created by post drew the distance close, linking the U.S. by wire obliterated it. The telegram, the wires for which began to be laid during the Civil War, and continued with the expansion of the railroads, didn’t just allow people to send news and greetings quickly. It eroded the sense of frontier; of out there.
As more and more rail lines linked far away cities with others, mail traveled faster. So did business. The financial speculation in growing oil industries could move at the speed of electricity. So the violence of early American capital had a new accelerant. The idea of the Pony Express began to seem quaint. Why kill horses getting news and money and letters to California when a few keystrokes could bring most of those things there.
It may seem strange to talk about the telegram now—especially as it is today a luxury device—but its importance is hard to devalue. It is not the messages it sent, but the network it created. As Clark Blaise points out in his wonderful book, Time Lord, the telegram created a world of instantaneous time. Prior to this, the U.S. had dozens of time zones, and no notion of what noon in Cleveland meant to those in New York. With standardized time, science and business could suddenly operate in ways they had previously been unable.
The telegram also built a newspaper industry that brought news of the world to doorsteps. Prior to the telegram, getting news from England to South Africa for example took as long as six weeks, even longer to get from South Africa to America, as it traveled by boat. This turned to seconds with the telegram. So much news traveled over those early wires from all parts of the world that some newspapers became overwhelmed, and shut down their wire services on principle. For some U.S. newspapers in the Victorian era, out there should stay over there.
Only it didn’t, and the world has continued coming closer ever since, even if it remains—in its actuality—far away. Nothing dramatized this zooming in quite like television, which brought the world—and more aptly, its representation—into our living rooms, our bedrooms. In his prophetic 1980 New Yorker magazine piece, “Within the Context of No Context,” later turned into a book, George W.S. Trow described the effect of the new medium on American cultural life as a planing down of many contexts into just two—the intimate, and the national.
Everything in between—what he calls “the middle distance”—was eroded. Writing of sitcoms and television news, he argued that “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context.”Resisting the changes—embracing the self-denying pleasures of obsolescence—is a losing battle.
Not much later, after decades of being dominated by television, the Internet evolves from a military defense tool to a domestic information network and now our dominant medium for news, entertainment, and distraction. I will spare you the history, but we are now emerging from the lengthy, necessary period of reaction and pushback to this change. Almost every single columnist, and most writers of note, have been asked to comment on, describe, or break down their relationship to the Internet.
It would be easy to call them all—myself included—Cassandras. This has been a huge shift, and a great deal of that change has happened in the last 15 years. Take my journey to that coffee shop. If I were to make it now carrying a smart phone, with its own digital post office, movie theater, video arcade, XXX booth, photo album, newspaper stand, telegram, art studio, bookstore, library, map and stereo system, it would feel impossible to walk those five blocks without checking it, fiddling with it. Anyone who lives in cities recognizes people in the throws of this state: the cell phone zombies. Navigating by a faulty sixth sense around people on the street while they click and swipe and fidget their way from one destination to the next.
* * * *
It’s very easy to think that things were better, before. Largely because when we say before, we’re not just talking about technology and some of what technology carries, it’s everything that was alive and part of our lives in that time. I miss the 1970s—not because I long for LPs, or Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdown, but because I remember what it felt like to be a child, for the world to seem vast and close at once, and largely benign. When it was more necessary to do things than it was to know them. When if I felt like reading a book, I simply pulled one off the shelf, lay down on the floor, and read until I was tired or bored. And then did something else.
Reading is one of the very few childhood activities that is at once utilitarian and pleasureful. Perhaps only bicycling and eating are carried forward in such a way. In reading for pleasure we are connected to the best parts of being a child. Yet as adults we read in a completely different context, with far more pressures for our attention. Even if we didn’t have smart phones in our pockets, beckoning with useful and useless information and distraction, many of us have to fight for the time to read. And then fight through mental pressures to achieve the state of abandon a child on the floor has while reading.
This is also why reading has proven to be such a stubbornly popular activity. When we lose ourselves in a novel or biography, we can achieve a kind of absorbing pleasure and mindfulness no other medium can provide. Time, whether it feels jittery or speeded up in the day-to-day world, slows down, elongates, in a good book. The inside and outside of the world collapse in the third space a book opens up. And this ethereal state lingers. How often have you put a book down and carried on to a new activity, while the story or its language cling to the air around you, like woodsmoke after sitting near a campfire?
* * * *
Increasingly, it would seem data is backing this up. So many of the things we thought would happen as a result of the Internet with regards to publishing—a total decimation of the bookstore, a preference for e-books, and a new generation of readers addicted to short chapters and Amazon Prime—have not occurred, at least not yet. Even Leon Wieseltier’s elegant essay on the state of culture in an age of distraction was undercut by its own success. We are distracted, but not too distracted to read—rather than view—and wrestle with a serious man’s concerns.
And the good news seems to keep coming. Following the shuttering of many independent bookstores, the industry has bounced back. Three Lives, Elliott Bay, City Lights and Book Soup still do business. There are thousands of others. It turns out people like to read books recommended to them by other people in person. It’s why book clubs are still around. E-book use grew rapidly and now seems to have plateaued, while a young generation continues to hanker for the pleasures of the printed book: in one recent survey, a startling 92 percent of young people ages 18-26 preferred to read a printed book.
And what about how the Internet is changing the way people write? Writing in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks said, “I will go out on a limb with a prediction: the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out. The larger popular novel, or the novel of extensive narrative architecture, will be ever more laden with repetitive formulas, and coercive, declamatory rhetoric to make it easier and easier, after breaks, to pick up, not a thread, but a sturdy cable.”
Indeed, there have been some notable recent success stories of books written in short chapters along the lines of Parks’ prediction, from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to Elizbeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love to Anthony Doerr’s recent All the Light We Cannot See, but there have been some fascinating counter-trends, like the Beatles-like mania over Karl Ove Knausgaard and his 3,500-page, six-volume novel, My Struggle, the latest of which, Dancing in the Dark, is out this week in the United States.
When writers try to describe what it is about Knausgaard’s work that mesmerizes, they often talk in circles without putting their finger on time. How the novel conjures—and sustains—a sense of what time feels like. “This is not boring in the way bad narrative is boring,” Hari Kunzru wrote in The Guardian about Boyhood Island, the third volume. “It is boring in the way life is boring, and somehow, almost perversely, that is a surprising thing to see on the page.”
Knausgaard is not alone in celebrating the magnificent boredom of life. Elena Ferrante, Edward St. Aubyn, W.G. Sebald, and—in the case of 2666—Roberto Bolaño, a notable group of novelists (whose work has swept through literary circles in the past decade) who have written languorously, with an attention to the texture of time, how it feels in the middle distance, as Trow would put it. Each one has been received with a welcome akin to relief. Finally, readers seem to be saying, a writer who pretends as if I am not constantly interrupted.
* * * *
Writers, those professional readers, who once seemed so embattled by the current state of Internet saturation, seem to have beaten a separate peace with the web and its siren songs. Paeans to Freedom, the Internet disabling program, are a thing of the past. The Internet is here to stay, of course, and one either adapts, or blames oneself, for not getting on with it. James Gleick, the three-time National Book Award finalist who wrote Faster, Faster, on the speed of technology progression, and The Information, was sanguine when I wrote to ask him if the Internet or screen-based reading had changed the way he wrote. As for reading, that works just fine, he replied, as for writing he said:
“If I’m honest, the Internet is, just as everyone says, a horrid giant distraction, which will forever more make it impossible for me to focus as I vaguely remember doing in my youth. But if I really believed that, probably I’d be trying to do something about it. And I’m not. I’m really quite happy. I think my writing is better for the constant possibility of going elsewhere; the distractions are often research, accomplished in seconds, that I wouldn’t have bothered with, because it would have required hours or days. Or if my writing isn’t really benefiting, maybe I’m having too much fun to care.”
Edwidge Danticat echoed Gleick’s sentiments, and was very clear in her email to me about the value of the Internet as a tool.
“I really like the Internet. It does not distract me much. I do stop to check my email and look things up more than I probably should, but when I am really deep into my work, I forget it’s there. When I was just getting started in the late 80s, the most advanced writing technology available to me was an electric typewriter. To do research meant sitting in a library with a couple of fat reference books. Now you can just look something up as you are writing about it.”
For Lydia Davis, the ubiquity of digital communication is a manageable distraction, and sometimes even a welcome break:
“I often have the sound turned off, so that if I’m elsewhere in the room (not sitting in front of the computer) I’m not aware of receiving an email, for instance. I used to do my writing on a computer that was not connected to the Internet, but then I moved and everything changed. I might return to that. But I actually find that a short interruption—to check an email—is not a problem, and may even be helpful (to give my mind a quick rest), in certain sorts of extended and difficult writing projects. But in the “heat” of first writing a first draft, I simply don’t stop to do anything else, including check emails.”
Jonathan Safran Foer, though by no means a detractor of the Internet as resource, was less sanguine about what it meant for reading in the future. “The Internet has changed everything about reading and writing—not because we have lost our ability to be focused and quiet, in the ways literature demands, but because we’ve lost our desire to,” he wrote in an email. “I’m sure there will be a movement away from the life of noise and stimulation—the rise of meditation is probably an example of a resistance already afoot—but once one loses one’s taste for something, it’s almost always lost for good.”
Here is a reason to celebrate the continued life of print. For unless one lives in a book-burning culture, it persists. It hangs around. It is not just evidence of the world as it was, it remains part of the world as it is, so long as you keep it handy. Most publishers have discovered that the only way to sell an e-book is to print it first, and that without the print-based ground-campaign, a great many e-books vanish into the giant library in the sky.
Having recently finished a new novel and New Yorker piece, Jonathan Franzen replied to my query with a simple statement, that “I have stacks of printed books and magazines that I’m hungry to start reading, and that the hunger—the imagined satisfaction—has to do with holding something printed in my hands and with being away from all screens. But that’s just me.”
* * * *
So here we are in 2015, far more distracted than ever before, but still reading. Still walking into bookstores, still unfolding newspapers on Sunday, if we have the luxury of time, still buying paperbacks for children and teenagers, still reading Faulkner if we want to, or because he has been assigned. Still hungry for print, not out of sentiment, but simply because for most of us, a more pleasurable way of following a story has yet to be invented.
All of this might seem a strange way to launch a new literary publication based on the web. I agree it’s counterintuitive, but hear me out. One of the great problems of the web is not its distraction, but it’s too muchness. Navigating this plenitude we have to constantly make judgements on quality and quantity, and if one is a reader in search of serious and engaging writing, the good and bad are often scattered over many different sites.
The Literary Hub, then, is an attempt to eliminate all that searching, to put what is best in the literary world—the essays, the excerpts, the interviews—all in one place. So far over 100 journals and publishers have signed on to this project, and by the time this runs I’d not be surprised if there were fifty more, willing to contribute to the task of presenting what is worth reading, and worth reading about reading, all in one place. This is meant to be a site that makes it easier to celebrate and go deeper into reading, the most arresting, the strangest, the most beautiful writing on the planet.
In the middle of writing this essay, I was walking home from class up Seventh Avenue. It was late and I was lost in thought when I stumbled into a writer whose byline and figure has been a friendly presence at the fringes of my life for 15 years. He, too, was coming from a class he’d just taught. We laughed about meeting this way and then talked about how we used to frequent the same coffee shop, trading Internet addiction stories, like two people on a smoke break outside of an AA meeting.
When you run into someone infrequently your eye does most of the catching up work in a second. Clearly my friend was well. He was relaxed and smiling without the dark backdraft he once had; there was a lightness to his being in the world I had to smile at. He’d gotten ridden of his web-browser he told me, reverting to our old conversation, on both his computer and his phone. “It’s great,” he said, “I go to the library in the morning, check my email once, update Facebook, do a bit of research, and I’m done in about seven minutes.”
His method sounded staunch, but it was doable. A few years ago, I lost my phone and spent two weeks untethered from the Internet. For the first time in decades I remembered what it was like to wander, how much pleasure there was in boredom, in the thoughtless pauses that exist in consciousness when one is not constantly connected to some form of stimulus or information. And when I returned home from a coffee shop or class, I used the Internet with a renewed sense of purpose and restraint.
Increasingly, I have begun to feel that the Internet is an enormous benefit to reading and writing, so long as it is used wisely. That if one mainlines the web, in whatever form, one will not suffer so much from reality hunger—as David Shields neatly describes our desire for more lived reality in literature—but a kind of hyperactive life hunger. Indeed, we are approaching the moment, as Leon Wieseltier described, of every book ever printed being available on the web. Borges’s infinite library is nearly complete. And it’ll hold every map, TV show, newspaper article, artwork, photograph and pornographic film ever made.
All of which is fabulous, but somehow, not enough. The more we chase down this endless rabbit hole, the closer we get to the realization that we will never see it all, never read it all, never touch every represented surface of the world as we know it. It is impossible. We have to choose. And the harder we chase completeness, the more this knowledge of its impossibility stalks us, turning into a magnified, somewhat misplaced sense of loss. How tragic not to have it all.
It is a mistake, though, to think this way. The only way to truly have it all is to never use it all. The infinite library is not for just one person to ingest, that would be absurd and decadent, it is for you, me, and the six and half billion others to share and use based on our different taste. To treat it like a resource that must be consumed and kept pace with is like living in a city one wants never to change. It is like the idea of a library, rather than the actual thing. It is like mourning what is theoretically lost, rather than what is truly lost—save, perhaps a recording—never come back at all.