I have a confession to make. In days of yore, when my reading was done on dead trees reading squiggles made of dried ink I used to be a little more productive and organized. Some books used to come to me view the post for reviewing, some would be sent to me by publishers in pre-print format so I can read them and add a preface or an endorsement and many others I would buy myself.
Lying in orderly if haphazard stacks on my desk and bedside table they were a constant reminder of what I had to do, commandeering all my available time as I read them two-three at a time to the tune of up to ten books a month. These days all my reading is digital.
I read reams and reams of writing on websites and research papers in PDF. I download books for my own pleasure and some get sent to me by friends who have managed to uncover a creative commons gem that needs to be read. In terms of word consumption I probably read twice the amount I read before and perversely enough I also do about twice the writing to the tune of some 16,000 words a week and yet there is a paradox at work here that comes down to the medium.
Way too often books that ought to be read go unread. Papers that ought to be on my radar drop off as a I download fresh ones in an ever expanding list. My reading, done across devices and screen sizes now is always on as opposed to starts and stops. I have noticed that it is easier than ever to become distracted, to go running down rabbit holes where I chase some obscure manuscript or look for academic papers to cross-reference with other publications I have read.
The Medium Changes Everything
Just as reading on slabs of marble might have cut down on the amount of reading we’d do, just as it helped increase our upper body strength, so does reading across digital devices change the rhythm of the activity if not its nature.
So what is different? Different in the digital medium is the ubiquitous activity of reading. Because we read all the time, text messages, website content, reports, PDF files, eBooks, emails and comments we forget that reading is also something that has to be willfully carried out, with intent and single-minded concentration.
We skim-read, speed-read, cherry-pick headlines and paragraphs, look at comments to summarize long articles for us and grasp at infographics as lifesavers. The TL;DR culture that rises out of all this activity is actually a knee-jerk reaction to the all too-real fact that all of us have limited available time and way too much reading to do.
Suddenly our eyes, darting across the breadth of screens become the limiting factor throttling back the speed at which information can reach our brains. And this justifies the incredible reaction of the “too long, didn’t read” culture which arises as a defense mechanism.
Our Reading Habits Are Changing
When we are swimming in words, have near-instant access to knowledge and books and can download entire libraries at the click of a button it is inevitable that reading, as an educational or entertainment experience, is going to change.
To really read now requires a high degree of discipline and the kind of planning that used to be the preserve of complex projects.
In the absence of physical books to remind us of the need to simply take a break, reach out and read, here’s one way to make the most of the digital access to reading without losing focus, getting too distracted or getting burnt out:
01. Once a week set aside two hours where you read a new ebook or two.
02. Make it a rule that if a book does not grip you by page five then you need to stop reading it. Life’s too short to read books that offer little value.
03. Hunt out a new free eBook a month.
04. Talk about the books you read. Others deserve to know of a good one or be warned about a bad one.
05. Make reading a social/learning activity. Solicit opinions, discuss ideas, discuss writing styles on social networks and share which good books you have read.
06. Talk to your favorite authors, if you can. Let them know that you enjoyed their books or that you hated them, provided you are prepared to explain why.
07. Make reading an activity that is willfully integrated in your life, not something you do if you happen to have a spare moment.
08. Make notes on your reading. Tablets and eBook readers have now made it possible to read and make notes on the pages we like about the things that catch our attention. More than this being a superfluous activity that is simply there because the technology allows it, use it as the boon it is. In the past we were too conscious of the cost or value of books or the irreversible nature of making notes on the margins to actually do so. This is not the case with digital so use it.
09. Regard reading as an investment you make in the mental you. The part of you that few people see in full but which informs everything else you do.
10. Try and buy at least a book a month. Now, I know the limitations on time, cash and energy but if the previous nine points mean anything at all it’s that reading is food for the mind. It provides exercise for the “little grey cells”, it unleashes ideas and provides escape. Despite some eBooks being unrealistically priced by publishers they still cost less than a few beers (or a Starbucks latte if you live in London) and they will do far more for your mind.
Newsweek, the weekly news magazine is now going to be fully digital. This is a trend that will continue. As more and more of our reading is done on screen rather than paper, using devices rather than books, we will have to work out new reading strategies for ourselves in order to make it work for us.
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