Most 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.