I recently suggested that it’s good to occasionally ask ourselves, “Why do we read?” That question was prompted in part by the unhealthy tendencies that I find myself struggling to resist in the context of online reading. These tendencies are best summed up by the phrase “reading to have read,” a phrase I borrowed from Alan Jacobs’ excellent The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Incidentally, telling you to read this book is only the first piece of advice that I’ll offer in this post, but it might be the best.
As it turns out, Jacobs revisited his comments on this score in a post discussing a relatively new speed reading app called Spritz. The app sells itself as “reading reimagined,” rather brutally so if you ask me. The app flashes words at rates up to 600 words per minute featuring its “patent-pending Redicle” technology. In any case, you can follow the links to learn more about it if you’re so inclined. Near the close of his post, after citing some trenchant observations by Julie Sedivy, Jacobs observed,
“It’s all too easy to imagine people who are taken with Spritz making decisions about what to read based on what’s amenable to ‘spritzing.’ But that’s inevitable as long as [they are thinking] of reading as something to have done, something to get through.”
Sedivy and Jacobs both are pointing out one of the more insidious temptations technology poses, the temptation to fit ourselves to the tool. In this case, the temptation is to prefer the kind of reading that lends itself to the questionable efficiencies afforded by Spritz. As Sedivy puts it, these are “texts with simpler sentences, sentences in which the complexity of information is evenly distributed, sentences that avoid unexpected twists or turns, and sentences which explicitly lay out their intended meanings, without requiring readers to mentally fill in the blanks through inference.”
In his post, Jacobs also linked to Ian Bogost’s insightful take on Spritz which was titled, interestingly enough, “Reading to Have Read.” Bogost questions the supposedly scientific claims made for Spritz by its creators. More importantly, though, he takes Spritz to be symptomatic of a larger problem:
“In today’s attention economy, reading materials (we call it ‘content’ now) have ceased to be created and disseminated for understanding. Instead, they exist first (and primarily) for mere encounter. This condition doesn’t necessarily signal the degradation of reading; it also arises from the surplus of content we are invited and even expected to read. But it’s a Sisyphean task. We can no longer reasonably hope to read all our emails, let alone our friends’ Facebook updates or tweets or blog posts, let alone the hundreds of daily articles and listicles and quizzes and the like. Longreads may offer stories that are best enjoyed away from your desk, but what good are such moments when the #longreads queue is so full? Like books bought to be shelved, articles are saved for a later that never comes.”
Exactly. And a little further on, Bogost adds,
“Spritzing is reading to get it over with. It is perhaps no accident that Spritze means injection in German. Like a medical procedure, reading has become an encumbrance that is as necessary as it is undesirable. “Oh God,” we think. “Another office email thread. Another timely tumblr. Another Atlantic article.” We want to read them—really to read them, to incorporate them—but the collective weight of so much content goes straight to the thighs and guts and asses of our souls. It’s too much to bear. Who wouldn’t want it to course right through, to pass unencumbered through eyeballs and neurons just to make way for the deluge behind it?”
That paragraph eloquently articulates, better than I could, the concerns that motivated my earlier post. I have nothing to add to what Sedivy, Jacobs, and Bogost have already said about Spritz except to mention that I’m surprised no one, to my knowledge, has alluded to Bob Brown’s Readies. In his 1930 manifesto, Brown declared, “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age,” and he developed a mechanical reading device to meet that challenge. Brown’s reading machine, which you can read about here, was envisioned as an escape from the page, not unlike Spritz. But as Abigail Thomas puts it, “It is evident that through the materiality of the page acting as the imagined machine, that the reader becomes the machine themselves.” Of course, I wouldn’t know of Brown were it not that one of my grad school profs, Craig Saper, was deeply interested in Brown’s work.
That said, I do have one more thing to add. Spritz illustrates yet another temptation posed by modern technologies. We might call it the challenge of the treadmill. When I was in my early twenties and still in my more athletic phase, I took a stress test on a treadmill. The cardiologist told me to keep pace as long as I could, but, he added, “the treadmill always wins.” Of course, being modestly competitive and not a little prideful, I took that as a challenge. I ran hard on that machine, but, no surprise, the treadmill won.
So much of our response to the quickening pace induced by modern technologies is to quicken our own stride in response or to find other technologies that will help us do things more quickly, more efficiently. But again, the treadmill always wins. Maybe the answer to the challenge of the treadmill is simply to get off the thing.
But that decision doesn’t come easily for us. We have a hard time acknowledging our limitations. In fact, so much of the rhetoric surrounding technology in the western tradition involves precisely the promise of transcending our bodily limitations. Exhibit A, of course, is the transhumanist project.
In response, however, I submit the more humane vision of the agrarian and poet Wendell Berry. In “Faustian Economics,” Berry, speaking of the “fantasy of human limitlessness” that animates so much of our political and economic life, reminds us that we are “coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.” But this, he adds, should not be cause for despair:
“[O]ur human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”
I would suggest that Berry’s wisdom is just as applicable to the realm of reading and the intellectual life as it is to our economic life.
With regards to reading, the first step may be coming to the realization, once again perhaps, that we cannot read it all. According to Joseph Epstein, “Gertrude Stein said that the happiest moment of her life was that moment in which she realized that she wouldn’t be able to read all the books in the world.” May Stein be our model, although I admit the happiness on this score is sometimes hard to muster.
I’ll leave you with two questions to consider. The first is from Len Kendall: “Is your day composed of reading 10% of 100 articles or 100% of 10 articles?”
The second is a set of related questions from Adam Gurri:
“Ask yourself: what conversations matter to you? Which are relevant to your life, and which are relevant to your interests? After figuring that out, be stricter about excluding stories that fall outside of those conversations. Be selective about the publications you read regularly, and seek to go deeper rather than broader in the conversations you follow.”