Reading the Internet

A friend convinced me to get back on Twitter. His reasoning: "So I can crack wise back n forth forever with you for all the world to see."

I left Twitter some months ago because I found it exhausting. To misquote Capote, "That's not reading, that's scrolling." Scrolling is an exhausting action, mentally and visually. Processing hundreds of articles a minute, deciding what's worth clicking and what isn't based on a small number of visual and linguistic cues. It's no wonder the neologism "clickbait" has gained traction in recent years. And even though I might not "read" more than a handful of articles a day, the thousands of cues that my brain swallows, whether to digest or regurgitate, leaves a dull ache by the end of the day.

In her Slate piece "Reading Insecurity", Katy Waldman points out, "It is becoming a cliché of conversations between twentysomethings (especially to the right of 25) that if you talk about books or articles or strung-together words long enough, someone will eventually wail plaintively: 'I just can’t reeeeeaaad anymore.' The person will explain that the Internet has shot her attention span."

I identified with the piece, as I am that plaintively (and shamelessly) wailing twentysomething. But looking back at my own reading habits, I've never had a particularly long attention span. In the years between 16 and 20, when my own leisurely reading was perhaps at an all-time high, I cycled between maybe four or five books at once, reading several pages of one book before flitting to the next. People would ask how I kept track of so many different plots and characters, to which I would reply, "How many shows are you watching right now?" They would start to grumble for a moment about how television narrative is inherently different from other forms of narrative, before realizing that my point was entirely valid, emitting a faint "touché" and moving on.

I still cycle between four and five books at a time; the difference now is those books have been "on deck" for years instead of weeks. I had a brief resurgence of print-reading when I was commuting everyday on the subway, yet I found it difficult to concentrate in that particular environment. For every book I read, I thought, "I will have to re-read this at home later." I also found that the types of books I brought on the subway were selected in response to that environment. The easily digestible scenes of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Freud Scenario were more conducive to subway reading than, say, the sprawling high modernism of Samuel Beckett's "Echo's Bones". I found myself glancing between the page and the subway stop indicators, calculating my reading speed against that of the train. I had to reach a section break before disembarking.

Now that I work primarily as a freelance writer and no longer commute daily (ask me how that's going), I find myself reading printed matter close to never. But considering I was also writing for pleasure at a similar rate until recently, maybe that will change soon. In any case, I'm @BrandonAhlstrom and I'm back on Twitter. Follow me or something.