When billionaire hedge fund manager Steven Cohen came under scrutiny in an insider trading scandal this summer, his lawyers provided a novel defense: they claimed that although he received an email that contained the incriminating information he never actually read it.
I laughed out loud when I heard that. And then I thought about my own inbox teeming with unread messages. And I remembered my ever-growing archive of half-read ones conveniently banished to “the cloud.” I’m relatively sure that there’s nothing potentially incriminating up there, but as the cloud expands to include more and more gigabytes, I have a mounting anxiety that something essential might have slipped past me unnoticed.
Experts estimate that as many as 100,000 words now pass by our eyes and ears each day (for comparison, the complete text of Paradise Lost is only 80,000 words). “Sharing” is the buzzword of our age, in which nearly all of what we read can be linked to, tweeted, emailed, attached, and downloaded within seconds. Mass digitization projects like Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America place more words within our grasp each hour, yet meanwhile we continue to hear reports that nearly a third of Americans did not read as much as one book in the past year.
It’s strange, isn’t it? Reading often feels as easy as breathing. When I go on a road trip, I don’t have to make myself read the words written on the road signs and billboards. It just happens. But when it comes to anything longer than a few hundred words, the text seems to thicken and we have to push back against a surprising amount of resistance.
The online magazine Slate recently found that fewer than 25 percent of readers who began reading an article would finish it and that the vast majority of readers didn’t make it past half way. Slate has now begun adding reading times to the headings of their articles so readers can decide if they want to invest the time (usually between one and five minutes) before they click the link. The Colbert Report was quick to poke fun at the apparent absurdity of the change:
“Clicking on a story is huge commitment. First you have to aim the cursor, then it takes about two seconds to load, then I have to scan the thing to find out how long it is. And if I want to back out I have to reload the page where I came from. Now as many as eight seconds have passed and I’m that much closer to the cold embrace of death.”
Even though it seems silly to worry about the loss of eight seconds, Colbert’s remark reminds me of the many thinkers and artists throughout history who have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on. We each have our own electronic tools—Feedly, Reddit, Evernote, HootSuite—we use not just to gather up information, but to dispense with what isn’t valuable, like machetes we use to hack away at the digital jungle.
In that sense there’s nothing completely new about our situation. In 1671 John Milton warned that “many books…are wearisome” and that the incessant reader runs the risk of becoming “deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” For Milton and others, passively reading for information was worlds apart from the act of wrestling with, or often “digesting,” what is read. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, advised one reader of scripture to “bite off some of this medicine constantly [because] if we chew it assiduously and pass it down into our spiritual stomachs, if we do not cast up again what we have swallowed…it develops all its powers and transforms the whole of us into itself.”
The monastic reading traditions of the Middle Ages had an even greater emphasis on the importance of transformation. In fact, in many monasteries active reading was the centerpiece of daily life. Several hours of reading (or lectio) often fell in the middle of the day, with the rest of the day devoted to periods of meditation, prayer, and contemplation. While lectio “puts whole food in the mouth,” meditation “chews it and breaks it up,” prayer “extracts its flavor,” and finally contemplation “is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshens.”
The writer and designer William Morris once said, “you can’t have art without resistance in the material. No! The very slowness with which the pen or the brush moves over the paper, or the graver goes through the wood, has its value.” For monastics, as for renaissance humanists like Erasmus, the same was true of the act of reading itself. The goal was never to make reading a quick, easy exchange, but rather to locate value in the slowness of the process itself.
These might seem like the quaint notions of a bygone age. If text is more present today than ever, it can also feel lighter and more ethereal. As Andrew Piper writes: “With my e-book I no longer pause over the slight caress of the barely turned page—a rapture of anticipation—I just whisk away. Our hands become brooms, sweeping away the alphabetic dust before us.”
Stream, cloud, dust; now more than ever our text and our reading times are in need of a shape and an architecture. Intentionally or unintentionally, each of us has a reading practice that shapes the way we live, think, and interact. It is either a practice that goes along with dominant trends or bends them to our own purposes, and channels our limited time into something that changes us and challenges us and…
Look at that, you’ve already begun—you made it to the end. That’s roughly 1,000 words of the 100,000 you will see today. What will the others be?