How We Read…Now
I have been known to run races, short ones, do bike rides, sometimes centuries and in these efforts, the pace, the rate of accomplishment, the distance covered and the amount remaining loom over me—a perpetual cloud that drives the cadence of my effort, the inner monologue, the motivation to push one more step. That kinda makes sense. A race, by definition, whether competing against your own record or a field, is about time and distance.
Now let’s talk about reading. I'm out of the country, in Catalonia, writing and reading; I am here for two months. It’s been a wonderful year for books and I had been waiting to read many—ones that I wouldn’t be teaching in a class, ones just for me, ones that bring inspiration. I had downloaded Kindle onto my I-pad and my galaxy phone, embracing electronic reading because it would allow me to have “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris” by Patricia Engel, “We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo, I could finish “Salvage the Bones” by Jessmyn Ward, and “Claire of the Sea Light “ by Edwidge Dandicat. “Americanah” itself would have taken up as much room as my sneakers, my toiletries and some socks. I could delay the gratification for paper to have all these brilliant writers along on my trip.
About the first week in the country, I downloaded “The Infatuations” by Javier Mariás as a tribute to where I was—something Spanish, someone I hadn’t read before. And I launched into it, on the I-pad and on the Galaxy. The narrator captivated me immediately (although some of her descriptions feel more male than female); the story was a bit nutty, believable and disturbing. I have been reading it on the Metro, in my room, sitting in the park, sometimes on the I-pad; many times on the phone.
As soon as I started the text on the phone, I saw a footer on each page: 7 minutes left in this chapter, 35%. 7 minutes? I paused. Is this like a Google map letting me know that my walking time from the Fundació Joan Miró to MNAC would be 9 minutes, based on the average pace of a 150 lb. man in fairly good shape, who doesn’t eat too many Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Bars and stopped smoking within five years? Or is it the rate of reading of a sixth grader who understands complex sentences and recognize that Mariás’ run-ons are intended to have the sense of organized stream of consciousness—or is this the reading rate based on the relationship to, say, newspapers, which the average college grad can read cover-to-cover, not including the Home Depot circular, in forty minutes?
These random statistics, and I'm sure someone will tell us they are not random, remind me of Sister LaSalle telling us to read Chapter 6 in fourth grade and the first one done and who closes her book, can carry the note to the principal’s office. And we all wanted to go on a walk. Sure. Bet ya.
In the many evolutions of teaching writing, speed has been mentioned, striven for, comprehension, taking a laggy second place. Vocabulary also has weight but these percentages at the bottom of my phone kindle seem to imply that nothing needs to be looked up, that the reader can shoot forward to the end, in four minutes.
At the places where there are the faint underlines, that say, “Several people have highlighted this section,” do they take into account that we pause here and think about what the writer has said? Or is the highlighting reflexive and not able to stop the rate of progress? I worry about my tendencies to ruminate, explore, map the novel for structure--what if I finish a part in twelve minutes that was predicted to be six because I was so fascinated by the author’s approach? Is there some feedback to the kindle app that a reader has failed to keep up?
Why is speed admirable in reading? Or noteworthy? Is this useful information to the reader who has only 5 minutes, and she thinks, oh good, I can read this chapter before the coffee is done? Or the kids wake up? I have never been a fast reader, which was more of a disadvantage when I had difficult texts to read for classes, but novels, fiction, memoir, poetry—why have a shower, when you can take a bath?
Which brings me back to the race. I am now 44% of the way through “the Infatuations,” 84% of the way through “Salvage the Bones.” I am barely halfway through one and looking at the finish line of another. Rather than being motivated to move ahead, to make those numbers go up, as I would on my bike or on my feet, I am resistant. The percentages glare at me ever so subtly and I glare back offended—the end of the book is always in my consciousness which makes the electronic text less physical rather than more. Having a bound book open, balances itself in my hand, always the same amount of book, no matter how many pages are on one side or the other—but the kindle slices it into the fragments of the accomplished and unaccomplished.
If I tap the line, then I get two more statistics: Page 149 of 346, Location 1983 of 4563. I like page numbers, they remind me that I am reading a book—an intricate structure that unfolds and carries me from page to page. How does a book have 4563 locations? Again, I'm on the road, looking at those little mile markers that you must refer to when you need AAA to rescue you from a flat on a rural road. I just passed the water tower in Yankton and I'm at Nebraska, Sioux County Road 20, mile 1.7. Help. When I think of the book’s location, I see Madrid, the café where the woman first saw the perfect couple, the apartment, where she makes love to the widow’s crush, the car park, where the husband was brutally knifed.
All these cartographies: timers, locations, percentages, highlights, downloadable dictionaries, annotation opportunities, little blue bookmark icons detonate the book’s map to something technical rather than inspired. Will these eventually become important marketing tools? Will publishers say to writers, you need to have less that 5000 locations in your books, your chapters should be readable in 5-8 minutes and there should be no more than 350 pages? Please have something highlight-able every other chapter and please give our online dictionary some value by including an obscure word or allusion at least six times in the book—but by all means, don’t slow the reader down—we want her to finish so she can download another, quick to digest book. Go go go!
Like music in a supermarket, I try to background all these numbers floating about my pages; I know it’s the price one pays for succumbing to the e-book, and it’s cheap for the convenience of having these writers in my carryon so neat and un-crumpled. More than that, one device tells another which page I'm on—so the phone knows what I just read on the I-pad. Gross and good.
I know, too, that I can change many things about the text I am reading: the font, the background color, whether it’s landscape or portrait, small or large, bold or natural—all the fun of designing a book is transferred to the reader who can homogenize everything she is reading. Why bother with a Palatino when the reader is going for Skia? Ok, okay. Oh. Kay. I need to put all those variables out of my mind and find out what the woman does when she finds out the secret of Díaz-Varala. Will I know in the next 15 % or at location 2763? I guess I have to keep up.
I am 10% of the way through the books I brought with me, 40% of the way through the book I'm writing and 85% of the way through my trip. I am location 7 of 8 for this journey, the plane ride home being number 8. I am with partner 1 of 1 and missing locations and characters, pup included, from location 9. All in all, you should have read that in twenty seconds.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports