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November 29, 2005


As a reader of, not creator of or poster on, blogs, I find an additonal plus.

I have always been an ecletic reader, including most genres of fiction, as well as a wide variety of non-fiction. Among my favorite categories have been religion, politics and history.

Since I have started reading blogs, and occasionally throwing in my tow cents worth, I have found that my critical approach to reading has increased, particularly in the non-fiction area.

One of the things that has drawn me to this particular site si the variance of opinion. I may disagree with Charles frequently, but I do find him trustworthy, in that I believe he really has a sincere commitment to his views and is not just trying to make sure he follows the latest talking points. (Others may disagree with me).

I adore you Hilzoy, although I am not currently in the market for a wife. And I also consider you trustworthy, although I may on a rare occasion disagree with you as well.

My point is, that in reading blogs which present a variety of views, or readig different blogs that are fairly one sided, but reading both sides, when I read a book on, say, the current state of religion in the United States, I am better prepared to look at the arguements presented with a more critical eye.

I will find myself reading something and suddenly stop (perhaps like Kevin) and think about something I read here or at Kos or at Red State.

Although it may slow me down, it does enrich the reading process a great deal.

Good stuff, Hilzoy. I agree.

I also note a not-directly-related-to-blogging shift in my reading habits: these days I listen to more unabridged readings of big books (fiction and non-fiction alike) than I read. This is because of my iPod and my back problems. I often do better moving around gently on a walk or chores and getting the book that way than trying to sit still for extended periods. I still need the print for maps, footnotes, and the like, of course, a good reading gives me a lot.

As a Literature and New Media critic it is my decided opinion that Baron and Drum's pieces are smack dab in the center of the "Why the Internet is Destroying Literature" genre -- to be placed opposite the "Our Students Have Social Computer Literacy" genre where the two sides can glower at each other in suspicion and the rest of us can ignore them and go on with the business of processing information in whatever form we can find.

All that has really changed is that those of us with regular internet access have gone from having more limited access to informtion sources on any given topic (book store, local libraries, friends and associates) to having convenient and near immediate access to a vastly expanded body of information. I spend less time reading a particular book because I have access to more sources and can find one that fits my interests and requirements much more closely. I also have tools which allow me to locate the useful information much more quickly via database searches.

Does this affect my reading habits? Yes. Does it affect my comprehension? No. I just do not have to spend the same amount of time looking for a particular piece of information.

What all this translates to with my students is that I spend a lot more time teaching them to evaluate sources and find ways to get a quick understanding of a particular topic and locate the most relevant sources so that they can spend more time on those works and less time going through books and journal articles hoping to find something useful. The underlying process of critical reading and writing has not changed much at all.

1) I seem to have lost the ability to read light fiction. I get 100-200 pages into a mystery or horror novel, and set them down and never pick them up again. I have a half-dozen unfinished and laying around.

2) I have become more comfortable reading off a computer screen. Maybe I need new glasses, but just the physicality of not having my hands free, the weight in my lap, the need to turn pages, the different focusing distance, the sitting posture, adjusting the light...I have just become habituated to using a computer.

3) Lord knows there is enough available online. Last week when the HBO Rome series ended I read Caesar and 6 books in the Osprey military series. I don't read the latest and hottest non-fiction the rest of the blogophere does, but the gist will filter down eventually, and I can't deny an irrational prejudice for older stuff. Although I keep looking at Questia.

4) Data isn't knowledge, quantity never becomes quality, and reading is not a substitute for thinking. 300 Chess books and never made Expert.

I used to believe that computer literature could not possibly replace books because one cannot read a computer while in the bathtub. However my boyfriend does read his laptop from the hot tub, so I guess I was wrong.

I find myself more towards Kevin Drum's end of the spectrum. Perhaps it's that I read primarily for entertainment, even if I do like thick history books. As a consequence I read fairly lightly and would probably fail a quiz on the book when I finish it. Perhaps my mind is one of the flightier ones to begin with.

That said, I do feel a conscious need to step away from the computer and spend some time chewing on something more substantial than blogs. It's been slow going restoring to my mind the ability to read something big and boring. Fiction has helped as a sort of halfway house.

You're deliberately misunderstanding the argument. Kevin and Jeanne are wondering if blogging harms attention spans, not whether or not people don't read books.

I haven't found that computers cut down significantly on my reading; an infant and a toddler did that all on their own. I'll have to wait a few years before I can answer whether my reduced ability to follow sustained arguments is kid-related exhaustion or computer-related brain atrophy.

Your timing though, Hilzoy, is spot on. Yesterday, I read Drum's peice and glanced at Jeanne's. Eventually, after wandering over to ObWi, I found myself thinking, "Hilzoy is an academic who also blogs, I wander what her take is on this issue?" And lo and behold, here it is.

Personally, I read almost as many books as ever, having sacrificed such ephemera as sleep and a social life to keep up with that datastream. YMMV.

re, Kevin Drum, my observation is that most people a few years into their career (i.e., prime political blogger age) read fewer books, because a) they have less time, b) they have kids, and/or c) they've read the basics already.

re Jeanne d'Arc, some might view being struck by a thought mid-book and feeling compelled to stop and follow it through a feature, not a bug. This is what books are supposed to do, though we have lost track of this fact in a world where books are, too often, things you have to take a test on.

Reading blogs - reading anything online - develops TOS (TOS is a euphemism for banned profanity - just apply whichever profanity you might use were you the author) detectors in regular readers. Watching the debates go back and forth, seeing which arguments hold water and which are leaky buckets is an education all its own. That is, if you read where the debate is honest and muscular. Like here.

I don't know that reading blogs reduces the ability to follow long arguments (argument as a statement of position or thesis). Most books are far longer than necesary to make the important points contained within. Blog posts and comments tend to be pithy - and not well footnoted. Usually, someone gets the footnotes out there.

Somebody proposed, or quoted, a truly interesting idea the other day. It might have been hilzoy, or it might have been some other place on the net, I simply don't recall. The heart of the idea is that the left, in it's embrace of intellectual honesty and open discussion, actually prepares the ground for takeover by the radical right. Lies, told convincingly by the powerful, have their own unequivocal power. Intellectual honesty takes the back seat until the inevitable fall.

As McCain's Chief of Staff said of Norquist, the radical right truly believes the truth is for suckers. Which is what brings me back to this discussion - the left blogosphere is filled with discussion that educates the TOS detectors in the readership. A book couldn't offer that kind of educaton. It takes a free flow of ideas and passionate speakers. Where else can modern human beings get that kind of exposure, except here?

When I think of the quality of debate that attended the framing of our constitution and the bill of rights, I think that the so called left of today is the true child of the American revolution. The radical right would have all been Tory sympathizers. And their children wouldn't have served then either. The British troops were supposed to do the dirty work. (I just made that last part up - I don't know if it's true or not - it sounds good :) )


My reading habits haven't changed much, a book a week, and I'm online 8 hrs a day. Books are one thing and blogs are another and movies yet another, radio, tv, conversation etc. What the internet has displaced is the library. As affects attention span I think it depends on the age at which you were introduced to the digital method.

Just curious; which books did you read on labor history?

I'm sure this is a good post, but my mind started wandering at about the fifth paragraph and I just had to break to research some digital cameras...

Nell: Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism 1945-1968; Robert Zeiger and Gilbert Gall, American Workers, American Unions; Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union; Michael D. Yates, Why Unions Matter; Julian Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin: Left Out: reds and America's Industrial Unions. Alas, I bogged down before I read Paul Buhle: Taking Care of Business.

hilzoy, do you ever sleep? you smart people are making the rest of us look bad. why don't you look into that new Xbox :)

DaveC; you've found out my secret: no X-box. My brother had something that might have been an X-box, and I played it once, but skiing through that Mad Max urban landscape just made me seasick. In an addictive sort of way.

I have a "monkey mind" problem, but it has nothing to do with blog reading.

Jake, while some books are longer than necessary, most of the ones I read aren't. Exceptions being those where I simply don't care to learn a whole book's worth of information about the topic, but only discover that midway through (which I consider a matter of taste, not bad writing). And yes, I think a good book can also improve one's bull-detectors. Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers, for instance, has a lot to say about secularism in American society that I hadn't heard before.

Fraser, I think of it as building a neural network. It takes training to make it work. You can train it slow, or you can train it fast. Seeing as most people in America don't read books at all (I am not sure of that fact - we have conflicting evidence - I think it can safely be said that few Americans read thoughtful books - at least more thoughtful than, say, 7 Habits, or Chicken Soup) whereas blog reading increases every year, it is most likely that neural net training will occur, if it does at all, with blogs, not books. You'd have to read a LOT of books to get the quality of bs training that a few weeks of blog reading will provide. Except, of course, if you read only radical right blogs. Then you will get training, but such training could better be described as "conditioning".


I find that wrapping my head in tin foil while reading blogs dramatically reduces stray electromagnetic interferences generated by the electronics, improving my overall mental abilities. The book: The Body Electric, Robert O. Becker.

Jake bnto- I am a counter-example of your thesis. I used to be a libertarian, then after 9-11 I started reading war-blogs.

Personally I think anyone thoughtful who reads Tacitus generally, or Charles Bird specificly, will end up a rabid Democrat.

I'm with the original complainants: as I read more blogs, I read fewer books. (And as my students become more at one with the Internet, they become more strangers to the library.)

The fact that Hilzoy's experience is otherwise proves yet again, if any proof were needed, that she is of a species superior to the rest of us.

Long may she bless us with her radiant (and well-informed) presence.

I find myself increasingly illiterate, but I honestly can't tell if that's from the blogging or, more likely, the grad school. It's actually got to the point where I have to force myself to crack one of my favorite books each month -- no matter how hard or easy a read -- just to prevent myself from losing what little grasp of English I still possess.

I'm also supposed to be a grad student at a good school. I advocate for sane-making, in decreasing shots of severity: 1) good narrative history (memoires, overviews, letters), 2) contemporary literature (the good stuff, have I mentioned Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black>?), 3) genre fiction: go on, gorge yourself; it keeps your soul alive.

Yeah, before #1, you're supposed to do your work, and between all the sane-making you're supposed to keep track of the world and the progression of culture. I'm working on the sane-making, myself, for now.

Did that kill the blue?

My experience is much closer to yours, hilzoy. Then again, I'm not an echo-boomer who grew up in front of a computer screen.

I read blogs instead of watching tv. I read about as many books (finally, having small children made a hugh dent in the habit) but I find myself reading more non-fiction books than I used to, 'cause they are recommended or are about a specific topic that interests me.

More fiction books too actually, after recommendations online: I bought The Phone Tollbooth because everybody here was so enthousiastic and both me and spouse loved it ;) (I buy lots of books for my kids, in eager anticipation of their fun whilst reading them).

Mindreading Hilzoy: "You're deliberately misunderstanding the argument."

How many fingers am I holding up?

"re, Kevin Drum, my observation is that most people a few years into their career (i.e., prime political blogger age) read fewer books, because a) they have less time, b) they have kids, and/or c) they've read the basics already."

A and B make perfect sense to me. C makes absolutely no sense to me unless we assume that the person(s) under discussion have little interest in any knowledge or experience other than in a specific (professional?) field, and has absolutely no concept of "reading for pleasure." (Otherwise I'm pondering the concept of a given set of books that contain "the basics" on life, the universe, and everything; oh, wait: 42.)

I do watch a fair amount of tv, and play quite a lot of computer games (note to Hilzoy: "games" and simulation/"entertainment" software are an even more sweeping set of variant presentational formats and genres than "books," or "movies" or "music"; imagine generalizing about what "books" are like from a single, solitary, example, please).

I do read a great many fewer books than before I had regular online access, but my information, and text, intake has only gone up, not down. When one still spends about 9/10ths of one's day, every day, reading, all one's life, I really don't think that whether it's in a trade paperback, hardcover, pocket sized, magazine, manuscript, proofs, scholoarly journal, or via SMTP or NNTP, or any other trivial matter of format or delivery system, matters greatly in terms of overall benefit.

I have had other changes in reading habits, at times, over my life, but not related to what's previously been discussed here. They've tended to be things like experiencing some periodic burnouts in reading science fiction after my early years of fanaticism, and to having established the pattern in my life in some decades of being paid to do a lot reading in my favorite areas of interest, which did also have a distinct effect on what I could or desired to read for pleasure. (Working in publishing, at least fulltime, tends to significantly affect the way people approach reading-for-pleasure and time-allocation, albeit often in somewhat different ways, ranging from whether or not you can shut off, or turn down, the editorial voice in your head, to your concerns about spending time on non-work-related reading, to how slowly you read for pleasure versus speed up to get the job done, to how sensitive you are to cliches and writing problems, to other thangs that would enable me to close this sentence; and, of course, one's professional interests always affect, one way or another, one's reading for pleasure.)

"I bought The Phone Tollbooth "

I'm guessing "The Phantom Tollboth," but I could be wrong. (This is not an attempt at correction; this is an attempt at clarification.)

"...wrapping my head in tin foil while reading blogs dramatically reduces stray electromagnetic interferences...."

Check out the skience linked here.

Ah, tnxs Gary, I was busy with too many things when I wrote the post :)
I am working my way through some old Dr. Who eps with my kids, I think that is where the Phone came from ;)

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