A as per new-year tradition, here is the list of books I read in the year just ended, with commentary to follow:
- Stet, by Diana Athill*
- A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah
- A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
- Homo Evolutis, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans*
- Headlong, by Michael Frayne
- On Being a Photographer, by Bill Jay and David Hurn*
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré
- The Happiness Manifesto, by Nic Marks*
- Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, by Peter Maas
Yes, that’s a whopping nine books, two of which (Homo Evolutus and The Happiness Manifesto) are “Kindle Shorts,” meaning they are very quick reads. Clearly the trend is downward, as 2010’s list contained 23 items and 2009’s contained 32. My high point since starting this tradition in 2004 was 38 books read in 2007.
The list is so short I’ll dispense with the usual breakdown of author by gender, fiction vs. non-fiction, etc., as you can see all that at a glance. One thing that is worth mentioning is the ratio of electronic books (“ebooks”) to paper ones; in this case 4:5. (The titles in the list marked with an asterisk were e-books that I read on my iPad.)
There are two factors that I can blame for this decline in book ingestion:
- A significant change in my daily routine. Since early June of 2011 I have stopped commuting, so I no longer spend 150+ minutes a day crammed into a stinking and overcrowded subterranean tube with only my books to save me;
- My iPad.
I won’t go into details on that first point, as the new paradigm (working from home) is still a work in progress. I’ll need at least another six months before I can say anything definitive about that.
As to the iPad, it’s both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is easy; just watch the iPad commercials on TV. The curse is that the iPad is so full of instantaneous endorphin-jacking delights that I fear my brain is being trained away from the kind of pleasures one typically hopes for from a long and solitary reading experience, such as:
- Deep immersion into a another world. It could be a world with a bunch of different characters, locations, and situations, but if it’s all in the same book then those things are unified by the author’s voice and intentions. Falling into that for extended periods (read: more than 140 characters at a time) is a pleasure and maybe even an acquired skill. In either case I fear our ability to go there, or to even know there is a there to go to, is rapidly disappearing.
- Deep focus on the characters, locations, and situations within the world of the book. This isn’t quite the same as simply being immersed. When you achieve focus it puts that immersion on a whole other level.
- Relaxation and mindfulness that come from the above mentioned immersion and focus. It can be meditative and good for the mind. From what I’ve read, studies have shown (and my personal experience bears this out) that spending time on Twitter of Facebook before going to bed can cause problems falling asleep. The oversimplified explanation is that those rapidly-firing tweets and posts and links cause your brain to fire rapidly too, putting it into an uneasy and unrestful state and making it harder to relax and go to sleep. You don’t get that with a book.
On The Other Hand…
Lest you think I’ve only been reading in multiple doses of 140 characters, let me put that idea to rest. One of the joys of the iPad is the easy access it gives me to long-form magazine writing. In 2011 I read far more long articles in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Economist, Slate, Salon, Al-jazeera, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and various other newspapers and magazines, than I have in any other year in recent memory. Most of it comes via Twitter, where I follow a lot of those rags as well as people who link to them. For me, that’s the best thing about Twitter: endless linkage to great articles.
I use Twitter together with Instapaper to make it a more comfortable experience. Twitter provides the link, and if the article seems worth reading I’ll shoot it over to Instapaper where it is trimmed of all extraneous clutter and ads. It then sits there patiently, waiting for me to read it at my convenience (I don’t even have to be connected to the internets). I’ll describe this in detail in a later post. To many of you it’s probably second nature, but for people who don’t have iPads and who don’t use Twitter, you gotta see this stuff to believe it.
So I’m still not sure if the iPad is more blessing or more curse. I love the on-board dictionary that you can call up any time by just touching a word. I love that I can highlight and write margin notes on any ebook and many online articles. But I am short attention-spanned by nature, so it is hard to spend time simply reading a long piece without slipping out for a Twitter or email break every few minutes, which inevitably breaks the flow of the immersive experience.
I hope to read more books in 2012. I already have half a dozen on “standby” on the iPad, and my frequent trips to The Word on Milton, S.W. Welch, and Drawn & Quarterly mean my ever-expanding pile of unread paper books remains ever-expanding. Here are a few that I pulled out yesterday and put on a dedicated shelf in an attempt to force a commitment to read them this year:
Wish me luck!