My Problem

man-reading-with-magnifying-glass-new-york-1959Most of the reading I do online is extractive—I’m looking for something on Wikipedia or dropping through layers of Google links to assess my best chance for success. When I reach a hopeful destination, I scan. I dart around paragraphs alighting on key terms and use the “find” function when simple searching doesn’t work. Then I move on, grazing impatiently on acres of electronic text like a horse fly in an inconceivably expansive and ripe landfill.

Reading for pleasure is different—immersive rather than extractive—and, when I can slow down enough to do it, no compulsion rushes me. My eyes sweep left and right in steady rhythm, happy when words disappear and imagination falls into another world. Oddly, the satisfaction of immersive reading assures more detail sticks. Desire is a better taskmaster than desperation, and an engaged mind beats a restive one.

You can read books extractively and electronic texts immersively—the problem isn’t the technology but the user—yet every technology carries its secret ideology, its assumptions about what’s valuable and important, what’s advantageous and essential. The ideology of electronic media is speed. It promises facility, accessibility, and infinite resources. And its assurance of a ready pay-off requires a different sort of persistence unlike the stick-to-it-iveness of standard reading. If at first a user doesn’t find what he or she wishes electronically, the best solution is to abandon ship and search for another ship and another and another, etc because, in the cyberworld, any pause elicits instant irritation. Electronic media has changed my reading habits, and often I find myself slipping over surfaces I once penetrated. My mind grows impatient. I watch words cross the page and curse the uneven surfaces of challenging prose rather than trying to fit my own mind to it. A dark voice cries, “Where’s the answer here and how far to the end… or another alternative?”

I have nothing against Kindles, iPad, Nooks, or any other electronic reader, laptop, or desktop computer. When I remind myself, “This is a book too. You don’t need to be in a hurry,” I encounter them just the way I do paper books, looking to step into the reading rather than ski on it. I’m lucky, though. I know the old ways. I learned to read from paper, and its low-tech format trained me in plodding attention. No built-in distractions lurked in the document itself. I’m more than capable of distracting myself, so I wonder how I might have turned out if glowing words dotted the page and alternative routes popped-up on every edge. I’m not a fast reader but a thorough one—I learned to get as much as I could from the one page given me. I had to be patient. Picking up and leaving wasn’t much of an option.

Students who have read more electronic than physical text feel quite impatient. They arrive irked by the 20 pages I’ve assigned. “What were we supposed to get out of that chapter?” they ask, or they say, “I didn’t follow that at all. What was he going on and on about?” Their chief concern is a quiz asking about minor details they worry they missed. For some, it seems all the details are minor… or major. When your purpose is extraction, every text is a pile, and cohesive elements that ought to hold the pile together or make sense of it—like narrative, argument, development, or progression—are irrelevant and/or annoying. Students who are bold enough to admit they hate reading tell me it’s too slow. Not enough happens fast enough, and much of what they encounter has no obvious (enough) point.

I understand. I feel their frustration. The first moments of reading, before I flip the switch from extractive to immersive, feel like gripping an electronic fence. I wonder if I can hold on. The secret is to quiet the impatience of a mind now hopelessly addicted to diversion, nomadism, and faith in greener grass. If I can commit my mind to following sentences and paragraphs before me, I find immersive pleasure again, but it’s hard and, in the technological context to which I’ve become accustomed, it seems alien.

Technophiles at school suggest this distrust of electronic reading may be my problem. Being trained in an outmoded technology, they say, I’d rather cling to what I know. I’m too timid to give up my precious paper, they imply, even though anyone can see technology promises greater ease, variety, innovation, and novelty. Maybe they are right, but, nonetheless, I can’t help being grateful for my past, happy I have an extractive to immersive switch to flip. That switch doesn’t work as well in some of my students. Technology doesn’t exclude or eliminate immersive reading and can never do so—I know that—but with each improvement I’m finding depth harder to find.

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6 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Neil Postman, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work, Worry

6 responses to “My Problem

  1. 6vicky7

    Thanks so much for this post – I hadn’t made that distinction before but it makes total sense. Off now to immerse.

    • dmarshall58

      One of my colleagues at work made an interesting observation on this post–he suggested that the immersive and extractive states are seldom exclusive, that, especially in works we study, we swing between the two. I think there’s something to that… I just worry some of my student don’t know what immersive reading IS. Thanks for your comment. –D

  2. Yes! It took me a while to realise I had seen the enemy and she is me. While I moaned the inability of students to immerse [having them follow a motif through and then giving an oral report does wonders], I was unaware that my brain was adapting to my technological lifestyle, even more so since I retired from teaching.
    I have found I can go back to beloved books, but still have to gear up, but new books are rough. Of course, you are right: stick long enough, the brain readapts — perhaps with a sigh. Having a specific purpose [pleasure does not seem to be enough] seems to make a difference. I am rereading Proulx’s The Shipping News for a challenge during National Poetry Month. Because I know I will have to write thirty found poems, my brain is immersed immediately I open the book.
    A couple of weeks ago The WSJ came out with an interesting article: Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay: The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.
    Wave that at your colleagues. Tell them, too, that only printed books have a scent connected with them. Printed books engage all the senses more directly [except perhaps taste!].

    • dmarshall58

      I’m the enemy too, believe me.

      It’s funny, one of my students talked about the smell of books just after I read your comment. He wasn’t so complimentary–“They smell like my grandmother’s house!” he said–but the complete sensory experience of print is something I’ll miss if we go electronic, which, alas, is simply in the cards.

      What frustrates me most in this debate is how much of it seems invisible to the other side. They’re always arguing new approaches are just the same only better. I’m always arguing they are different in unnoticed, unacknowledged, unappreciated, and unaccounted for ways. They say, “Why would we turn down progress, particularly when we might be left behind?” And I say, “What are you calling progress, exactly?” My effort would probably be better spent trying to make the most of the technology foisted upon me. They don’t really want to hear me, and it only aggravates me to say what I’ve said before. –D

  3. I love this post. Actually, all your posts are starting to impact me in a similar way. I write responses to them I never send. Don’t take that the wrong way, what I mean is that they are forcing something up in me and that is important enough.

    I am too inarticulate to say much but, yes, I know, yes, I’ve wondered this too and so on.

    Over the holidays I read and reread three Alice Munro short stories, Soon, Chance and Silence. They are very good. I explained the plot of the first two to my daughter and then I read the third one to her aloud. Just taking the time to fall into these thoughtful works felt like such a luxury. It was immersive in every way. And that immersion got my own mind to thinking of my own stories and wondering when I will write them.

    I think immersion requires something more of us…perhaps a tolerance for separation, a tolerance for being alone. Oddly, in times when I have been most immersed, I have felt the deepest connection to my life, to myself and to others. With just these stories, and nothing more, I felt so satisfied. I found I didn’t want more, but saw I wanted to produce something of my own. A response? It seems the more I train my senses in the habit of grasping, extracting, the hungrier I become. Sometimes I wonder, in our modern world, if the very notion of satiation is becoming obsolete. I hope not. I like that feeling of fullness, I like to know when I have had enough and it is my turn to give.

    • dmarshall58

      I tell myself people must still hunger to be alone, to be immersed in an imagined world. I think they do but maybe it’s an imagined world that doesn’t demand so much of them. Even radio is more passive than reading, and current movies and television make reading look like hieroglyphs. If my students could have the experience of reading an afternoon away, I tell myself, they’d understand. Some of my students do–I teach some readers more voracious than I am. But, for the rest, their phones whine and their laptops announce neglect. They can’t imagine being so solitary, so unconnected. –D

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