Among the many complaints made about the shift from reading on paper to reading on screen, perhaps the most common—and most difficult to counter—is that we are moving from a medium that requires concentration to one that sows distraction into every syllable. This complaint assumes that the act of flitting from one reading to the next is necessarily inferior; but what if that were not always the case?
The kind of reading usually evoked in this complaint—either directly or indirectly—is that of the novel: reading that is all-absorbing, where the world outside the page disappears, and the one within beckons during every waking moment. This is reading on the brink of religion—a deeply blissful state that all readers aspire to, memories of which evoke a nostalgia usually reserved for a first love. I am as enamored as anyone with reading like this, and I sympathize with those who would mourn its passing.
There may be little the screen can do to compete with this kind of reading; many would argue it shouldn’t even try—that the nature of the screen prevents it from adopting so singular a purpose. But while reading a novel is a mode of reading often distant from that of reading on screen, it is not the only kind of reading we do on the page. And for the purposes of the complaint, it seems to me the novel is a straw man.
A better comparison would be to align reading on screen with reading an anthology. Both involve a selection of readings—not one text, but many. Both envision a connection among the texts—a constraint that argues for their co-existence; the writers could be from the same region or period, or the texts could explore the same topic, or they could be of the same form (essay, poem, play). And both revel in the excerpt—one act of a play, a chapter from a novel, a few poems from a larger body of work; one rarely reads an anthology cover to cover, but instead dips in here and there—now reading a headnote, now a short selection.
If the novel is the vinyl record, the anthology is the mixtape—it defies escape into any particular work in exchange for seeing the whole of something bigger. The meaning is in the collection—in the composition of distractions—not in any kind of singular reading experience.
That seems to me a better analogy for reading on screen; it captures a process of reading that involves movement—from one writer to another, from the poet to the critic to the playwright and back. The difference being that whereas the printed anthology is composed by someone else, the screen demands the reader be her own editor—the anthology comes together on a whim, infused with a haphazardness that can delight as well as disappoint. But what it lacks in durability, it gains in the capacity to surprise—instead of a clear, well-manicured path, it’s a trip down the rabbit hole.
It seems to me this kind of reading can be as engrossing as anything on the page—that in this case, it is not the medium of reading that engenders concentration so much as it is one’s interest in the subject. How many times have you searched online for the answer to a question, only to discover that hours have passed, your tea grown cold, the sun much lower on the horizon than when you started? The bias of the book reader looks upon such “reading” as inferior—if he even deigns to call it reading at all, and not surfing or screwing around. But it seems to me the time for such a view is coming to an end—that we are better off if we expand our definition of reading instead of stubbornly diminishing it.
In his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia, Jonathan Lethem carefully outlines his methodology for constructing the anthology, and then swiftly abolishes it:
In gathering these stories, essays, and excerpts I willfully ignored the boundaries of my new genre. There’s real science in here, as well as cryptoscience, and reverse amnesia, and one straight-up alcoholic blackout. I followed the higher principal of pleasure, tried to end where I started: with writing I loved and wanted to recommend to someone else. That is to say, you. Let this introduction be a ghostly scrim in front of the stories, then, a vanishing scroll of words like the preamble of backstory before the start of an engrossing movie, or like the rantings of the captive amnesiac in Thomas Disch’s “The Squirrel Cage,” which vanish into air as they are typed. What good is a genre? Genres should vanish and be forgotten, this one especially—it was made for it. Forget this introduction. Here are some stories. Here’s a book.
Lethem, The Vintage Book of Amnesia, page xvii
Here, also, is an image of a book that I would like to hold: that of a collection of readings that are loved, that are gathered up for reasons personal and so peculiar, that when joined become a book—not because of the paper or the binding or the barcode, but because of the pleasure they impart—because, for a time, in this one person’s mind, they belong together. Such a book need never be printed to exist. It need only be shared.