We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.
Manguel, A History of Reading, page 7
As I write this, I am baking bread. Or, at least, I am trying to bake bread; I am new at this and so not assured of success. Already the dough does not look like King Arthur Flour says it should; it’s supposed to be too slack to form into a ball, but here I am with a shiny, round, beautiful ball of dough, now rising slowly on my countertop. I keep reviewing the recipe, wondering if perhaps I misread one-half as one-quarter somewhere along the way.
I could, of course, just go buy a loaf of bread. There’s great bread to be had just a few blocks away. But I like the trial and error; I like the effort. I like the slow, Sunday pattern of getting up each hour to deflate and turn the dough, greasing my hands, forgetting to don my apron. It’s the kind of work that is deeply satisfying, even when you don’t succeed. The friendly call from the analog alarm on my stove is a respite from the email and IMs and knocks on my door that will chime every few seconds come morning.
In between checking on the dough, I am reading and (ostensibly, at least) writing. The former comes easier, but that’s how it usually goes. Alberto Manguel’s lovely and perfervid history of reading compares easily to the slow, leisurely process of bread making. Both activities are thousands of years old; both are essential to the human condition.
I’m reading, as I often do, on paper; and while I still think the printed book has more to recommend it than the digital one, I’m also aware of how much time I spend reading on the screen. So much good writing happens on the web these days that my desire to read as much as I can has grown from buying two to three books a week to subscribing to two or three new sites. My feed reader has come to resemble my nightstand, stacked high with books I have yet to attend to.
And yet, those two sights—the stack of books and the unread count in my feed reader—evoke dramatically different responses. To the books, I feel excitement, eagerness; I look forward to the hours I will spend lazily in bed, flipping from one to the other. I dread the unlikely event that I will ever read them all, that I will ever finish a book and not have another ready to turn to that very second. The act of reading is always unfinished, and unapologetically so—within a library, there is no concept of completion.
Yet my feed reader—also always unfinished—evokes within me a dread surpassed only by that most loathsome of places—the inbox. I grow weary as the unread count increases, as it fills up with new articles before I can skim the old ones. In it’s timeliness—most blog posts have short half-lives and so must be read now—and the mathematical precision with which the reader measures its contents, I am stripped of my eagerness to read and filled, instead, with despair. Instead of a thing to enjoy, it makes reading a thing to get done with.
It’s reading made efficient. But I have no lack of efficiency in my life; what I lack is leisure, quiet, and space. The feed reader is the fast food joint of the reading experience, but I want the farmer’s market, the slow-cooked greens, the home-baked bread. I don’t want to feed, I want to eat, with all the attendant history that word evokes—the flavor, the company, the time.
It’s been twenty-four hours since I started this bread making (the recipe called for an overnight pre-ferment), five hours since the dough began to rise, during which I’ve written a few paragraphs and read perhaps a hundred pages. It will be another two hours before the bread is ready to bake, time enough to make some soup and drink some wine. In A History of Reading, Manguel remarks:
It is interesting to note how often a technological development—such as Gutenberg’s—promotes rather than eliminates that which it is supposed to supersede, making us aware of old-fashioned virtues we might otherwise have either overlooked or dismissed as of negligible importance.
Manguel, A History of Reading, page 135
He’s speaking of the fact that, in Gutenberg’s time, the printing of books coincided with the ascendance of calligraphy. In our own time, I wonder if the very slowness of books makes them more valuable in the face of all the quickness around us, if their singular nature will prove to be their saving grace. And if so, can that inspire the design of a reading experience on the web that strives for the same lack of haste? Can we envision a future where leisure has its place?