In Praise of Not-Reading

Reading is, in these days, an over-rated activity.

Most of what is most important about books is now about not-reading them. I was reminded of this deep but counter-intuitive truth by a blogger (An American Editor) recently complaining that his To Be Read pile (TBR Pile) was getting unmanageable because it was full of ebooks that often cost nothing and were without physical presence.

Which brings us to the special problem of ebooks. Yes, ebooks are a special problem because they take up virtually no space — just a bunch of bits and bytes, digits if you will, on a disk that can store gigabytes of digits. And so that TBR pool steadily grows. I looked this morning and I have more than 300 TBR ebooks, and that pile keeps growing. Acquiring Books for the TBR Pile: The Special Case of eBooks

American Editor is here admitting to a very old-fashioned mistake. He has not caught up with the twenty-first century. Books are now not really for reading — or to be more accurate — they are only occasionally, under the most special circumstances, for reading. Publishers are partly to blame for this (culpable, since all publishers, especially of newspapers and magazines, know that their profits are entirely dependent on selling stuff that the customers do not read) and digital book experts would be much more on the button if they spent less time fretting about ‘reading‘. And part of the problem is that the digital experts operate with a vastly over-simple model of what reading is. The conventional wisdom is that proper reading (sometimes called ‘long form reading’ — a ghastly phrase for a dubious concept) is the measurable phase in which you open all the pages of the book and look at them, the hours and minutes through which a book, conveyor-like, passes, between the moment that you bought it and the moment that you shelve it in your personal library, never to be looked at again. Incidentally, ‘re-reading’ is a much more interesting concept than mere ‘reading’, but we note that in passing and may return to the topic on another occasion (you will have observed that you can do that with writing as with reading). This Taylorean model of, conveyor-like, reading predicates that in serious reading our eyes scan more or less consecutively the whole book from page 1 to page umpteen. Efficiently and quickly. The time and motion expert holding a stop-watch, just as Google analytics calibrates our use of the Google library. As though reading a book might not actually comprise understanding it, or failing to enjoy it, or realising pretty instantly that it was not worth reading at all. Under any circumstances.

Of course, reading has always been, but is becoming steadily more, episodic; very little of our reading is like this conventional model of continuous reading, and most of us who now work in intellectual or bureaucratic activities which involve web-based reading, spend a lot of time, yes reading, in ways which are not at all like the way you first read and enjoyed Babar, P.G. Wodehouse or Jane Austen. You see, we spend a lot of our time and energy deciding what not to read. And these decisions matter. Possibly even as much as enjoying Babar, or re-reading Jane Austen.

Our understanding of digital books would be much better if we spent less time wondering about how we might read them, and a lot more time thinking about the ways in which we may use them without necessarily, or even at all, reading them. For certainly, and beyond all doubt, when there are 20 million books in Google Books Search we will not seriously, continuously, read more than the tiniest fraction of them. There are a lot of things that we need to do with books and it is not at all clear to me that we have a framework in which these activities can take place with digital books, half as effectively as with print books. For example, we need to be able to:

  • search them (that activity appears to be brilliantly covered by the already mentioned Google Books Search)
  • provide access to them (possibly well covered, in the USA, by the afore-mentioned)
  • buy them
  • listen to them
  • lend them to a friend or a colleague
  • translate them (well)
  • quote from them
  • (ideally) cite them when we quote them
  • non-consumptively compute them (we none of us know quite what that might involve)

These are all important points, but I will admit to playing a rhetorical trick with this list, my bullet points, and the bold face. The key point about the list is the recurrent ‘them’. There are so many things that we need to do with books aside from, and apart from reading them. The key thing about digital books is that we need them. We need digital books to be the ‘object’ of all these newly digital verbs and activities. Digital books need to be as versatile and as ‘real’ as physical books in all these ways, even though they are now becoming entirely virtual and insubstantial. The big challenge that Google, Apple and Amazon have yet to project is that books themselves are becoming networked. And the Google, Apple and Amazon models of network usage will inevitably fail if they are not truly book-centric.

May I recommend (unreservedly, though I have forgotten most of it, and disagreed with much of it) Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Have Not Read. Which, in case you mistakenly decide not to read it, has many reviews here.

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One thought on “In Praise of Not-Reading

  1. I'm not sure what this blog is asserting but one thing for sure is that to have 300 books on your ereader when on holiday is better than the traditional habit of filling your already overburdened suitcase with a limited selection (usually hurriedly chosen) of books that may be to hand.Maybe the question should be – where do we do most of our reading and from there analyse the impact of ebooks.

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