The Reading Post  

Posted by Wayne Bretski

I got a great book recommendation this morning from our librarian. (The Disappearing Spoon by the way, nonfiction about the periodic table of elements.) She thought it fit my "dorky" personality, which was a nice back-handed compliment. That recommendation was a good impetus for me to finally write up some thoughts on reading, though.

The iPad, which I am an owner of, has been a very interesting addition to my reading roster. Before I was given this beloved gift, an article from Alexander Chee was posted to The Morning News. The following paragraph sucked me into the premise:

It began with approximately two paragraphs of the book, lit up on the screen of my phone. I tapped the side of the screen and it flew to the next three paragraphs, and so on. A few minutes passed and I observed that I was reading peacefully. It was both an entirely new reading experience, like I had a secret that fit inside the palm of my hand, but it was also familiar: In the fifth grade I was taught to speed-read on a machine that projected sentences onto a wall at high speeds, sentences in the white box of a screen, flashing in a dark room.

Moments later, I got off the train. That went well, I decided, and slid my phone back into my pocket. And then I drew it back out, turned the app on, and kept reading as I walked, something I taught myself to do as a child when I lacked the patience to put a book down in order to walk to school.

Written about the iPhone's tiny screen, this resonated, to say the least. I remember reading during dinner when I was a kid - I'd get like half a page done. It's not always about the efficiency, but the process.

Near the end of the article, this:
There have been unexpected domestic discoveries: The iPad is perfect for reading at night next to someone who’s asleep, both the book and the flashlight I hid under my covers as a kid. When I need to get water or go to the bathroom, I can use it to see where I’m going in the dark and not wake Dustin by turning on a light. I’m still prone to creating the need for a new bookshelf, with a recent purchase of eight physical books in a single store visit, but I’ve also put 12 books into what Dustin and I now call “the devices.” We both see this as a victory.
Miss Bee and I feel the same way. Her nook and my iPad are conspiring to knock paperbacks right off our to-do lists. We are still working our way through a small backlog of previous purchases, like Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and The Lacuna from Barbara Kingsolver. But I don't see us purchasing additional copies of physical books except in special circumstances.

*Before moving onto the Luddite's nightmare, let me recommend this short riposte from the editors of Ask the Paris Review, entitled Writers and Their Libraries. A host of good suggestions about the wood-pulp side of book stewardship.*


Which leads me to Gary Becker's recent blog post that begins: "The traditional bookstore is doomed by e-readers and online sales of hard copy books." Some interesting notes that follow.
The process of development has been presumed to cause a substitution of market activities for home production. For example, households in poor rural societies have not only grown their own food, but also made much of their clothing, washed their clothes, baked their bread, and cooked from scratch their other food. As countries underwent economic growth, many of these productive activities left the home and migrated to the marketplace. Factory-made clothing was substituted for clothing made at home, and bakeries and laundries developed to make bread and sweets, and to wash, clean, and dry clothes.

Further technological developments, however, such as small motors used in home washing and drying machines, and small machines that cooked bread easily at home, shifted many activities back into the home, and thereby saved on time and energy spent in the shopping process. The online digital revolution is a further major step in this trend of returning activities to the home. Time and effort are saved, for example, when instead of going to movie theatres, consumers both order and download films online to be viewed at “home”, either on television sets, or increasingly on computers.

Read the whole thing here. Insightful, and once again, my experiences resonate with the sociological theory of the author. In point of fact, Miss Bee and I have had free movie tickets, with popcorn vouchers, for months now and still haven't managed to leave the house to consume a new film in the theaters.

Except for the whole bread-making machine thing...that never really caught on.

But hearkening back to the Chee article, I didn't expect my reading experience to be radically altered by the medium. To wit, until I killed my iPhone, I had the nook and Kindle apps on my phone, iPad, and Mac. I could read with any of the devices. But this article on the Read It Later blog shows some evidence that the medium does matter. The phone is used for "whitespace", those short spans of downtime during the day. The computer is used throughout the day, mirroring the amount of input we receive. But the iPad user graph is heavily concentrated during the evening hours, what the author calls "personal prime time". The gist? More of my online reading is going to the iPad than expected, in addition to the "print" media I consume with it (newspaper, sports highlights, weather, books).

Read It Later is part of a crop of great new webapps that save content you find online to read another time. It's like a file folder, or even just a stack of articles you rip out, that you can peruse later when you have the time and inclination. I use Instapaper myself, and would recommend it to anyone. Here's their 2010 aggregation called Give Me Something To Read. Click through the link and give the service a try.


Another list I glommed onto this year was part of Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools website, which he calls "The Best Magazine Articles Ever". With such an audacious title, Mr. Kelly made a good move in crowd-sourcing recommendations, and thus sharing the blame of any critical resistance to the selections. That said, there is a lot to love in those pages, from Gay Talese's coverage of Frank Sinatra's sinuses to David Foster Wallace's ode to the savage grace of major tennis stars. Have a look, and happy reading. (If you need a New Yorker login name and password to access an article, email and I'll share mine with you.) As I read through this list again, it's sort of amazing how many of these articles I have discussed with or recommended to friends - it is a repository of cultural treasure.


The title of the Chee article also reminded me of a few things. Most notably, I, Robot starring Will Smith. But I digress. In the spirit of the Becker article, here is a link to the Leonard Read econ classic "I, Pencil" - so old that the text references Ceylon, but still so poorly grasped by most people.

I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write....Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.

Milton Friedman follows up, with plenty more on YouTube where it comes from:




Dear reader, happy reading to you in 2011. It is shaping up to be the best year for personal reading since leaving for college, and I hope that you are in some small way inspired to read something fantastic!

And for those of you that like a spot of tea with your novel, be sure to check on Christopher Hitchens writing for Slate about the proper way to make tea, via the George Orwell method.

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