Three definitions of “reader”

The first definition is the most familiar: one who reads, or one who is fond of reading. A young girl tucked under a tree with a book in hand; an old man waiting for the bus, nose pressed into the spine; three little boys sitting on the curb sharing a newspaper, ink smudged on their knees.

The second definition harks back to the single-room schoolhouse: an anthology of texts used for teaching. Here the term passes from the person doing the reading to the object being read, from reading for its own sake to reading with intent. The image of reading remains, but it becomes focused, purposeful; it becomes work.

The third definition shifts from the object to the machine: a device for reading data. No longer human, the reader becomes mechanical, the texts reduced to ones and zeros. There are no stories, only limitless information, each digit as insignificant as the next.

Somewhere between the second and third definitions lies the feed reader, the delicious account, the “read later” tag, the favored tweets. The device becomes the tool by which we produce the anthology. But whereas the old readers were constrained by what could fit between two covers, the new ones are infinite—they have neither beginning nor end, only the interminable middle, extending out in all directions, too far for the eye to see.

And therein lies the rub: the reader (definition 3) makes demands that the reader (definition 1) cannot meet. We try in vain to keep up, but it’s like the tortoise and the hare, if the tortoise was missing three legs and the hare was a comet, streaking towards the outer limits.

The natural response, then, is not to join the race at all. If you’ve weeded your feed reader lately, you’ve acknowledged as much. But within definition 2 lies another way: the constraint exists not merely in the amount but in the intent. Instead of asking, how much can I handle? ask what am I learning? Instead of what do I have time for? ask what is the meaning of it all?

Because the meaning isn’t going to emerge on its own—you have to create it. The algorithms and tag searches and bookmarklets will only get you so far; afterwards, it’s work only you can do, work the machine has no need for. The reader is your own personal anthology, but you are the editor: you are the sum of its parts.