How Do We Read in a Digital World?

AP Photo/Suzanne Tobias

In 1994, essayist and book critic Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Even during the early phase of the internet, the reader and bookseller in Birkerts could see how digitization offered a never-ending candy store of sweet distractions, and those distractions posed a danger to not only reading, but what reading does for the solitary reader. Birkerts rightfully feared how the screen would undermine a reader’s ability to sustain deep concentration, to make the connections needed to discern meaning in narratives, to do what he calls “vertical reading”; and that our distractedness would inhibit our ability to deeply examine ourselves. At the Paris Review, Mairead Small Staid reexamines this telling book to see which of Birkerts’ concerns have come true.

Horizontal reading rules the day. What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it. Reading—real reading, the kind Birkerts makes his impassioned case for—draws on our vertical sensibility, however latent, and “where it does not assume depth, it creates it.”

I no longer have a Facebook account, and I find myself spending less and less time online. As adulthood settles on me—no passing fad, it turns out, but a chronic condition—I’m increasingly drawn back to the deeply engaged reading of my childhood. The books have changed, and my absorption is not always as total as it once was, but I can still find, slipped like a note between the pages, what Birkerts calls the “time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day. “[S]omething more than definitional slackness allows me to tell a friend that I’m reading The Good Soldier as we walk down the street together,” Birkerts writes. “In some ways I am reading the novel as I walk, or nap, or drive to the store for milk.”

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