A life in books . . . and online.

December 16th, 2009


Oh, to spend my days in an old library like this one . . .

My academic life has taken me to some great libraries: the St. Andrews rare books section, the Harry Ransom Center, the Bodleian (at least for one day), the Butler, and that bibliographic holy of holies at Union Theological Seminary.

I still read voluminously, seemingly all day every day, but as I look back at the record of my reading for the year — and the past few years — it’s clear to me that I’ve let my online intake of words overwhelm my printed-book intake of words.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad to make my living as an online writer, and I’m well aware of the trove of good stuff available online. But I also know that most of the very best stuff I’ve ever read has come in book form, and that I do my best thinking about what I read when the computer is turned off. Besides all that, it would seem to make eminent sense to up my intake of books if I want to up my output of books.

So, an early resolution for 2010, one that I’ve already started on: read more books.

How about you? How’s your book reading these days?


Related post by Austin Kleon: MY READING YEAR, 2009.

(Image from Hannah Swithinbank, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.)

4 Responses to “A life in books . . . and online.”

  1. T.M. Camp Says:

    Very interesting post, sir. I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in my own reading habits, where the online reading was rising daily while the analog reading was declining.

    At first I thought the biggest issue I ran into was that the stack of books on my desk was getting dusty as the online reading took over.

    But a more important issue I’ve noticed — and as a writer it pains me to admit it — is that my reading technique had fundamentally changed. I’ve found it harder to concentrate when I’m reading longer pieces or books. As much as I want to say it isn’t the case, I can’t help but recognize that my rapid scan, point-and-click, ADD fueled menu of RSS feeds, blogs, and sites has fundamentally changed my reading process to one that more closely resembles filtering and not reading.

    Over the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to set aside time for book-in-my-hands reading every day. And I’ve had to consciously reset my mind, hands, and eyes to be more patient, to focus. I’ve been surprised at quickly my reading skills degraded versus how long it’s taking to recover.

    I expect I’ll continue to feel the tension between the online and the offline, but there’s something to be said for maintaining a more equitable balance.

  2. Daniel Markovitz Says:


    I’ve noticed the same thing. And I agree with T.M. Camp — my ability to focus for long stretches has definitely declined. Nicholas Carr wrote a long (and excellent) article on precisely this issue for the Atlantic last year called, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Well worth the read. (But do it in a library for god’s sakes.)

  3. Andrea Says:

    I agree partially with T.M. Camp’s assessment but I also think that my reading serves different purposes. If I am getting an update on the day, checking out social media, etc., then I tend to quickly read/scan the news as I find it (online). On the other hand, if I need an escape, take a deeper dive into a topic or want to be entertained, then books serve that purpose better. That being said, I also tend to buy different types of books–Malcolm Gladwell is a recent author I enjoy and I’m on his third book. Sometimes I’ll read biographies to learn about a successful person’s past. Of course, I love stuff that falls into the “chick lit” category, too. You won’t relate to that necessarily but you probably have your favorites, too. I’m hoping to get a stack of new books this holiday season. Thanks!

  4. Tim Walker Says:

    Andrea — Since I know T.M. (and Dan) via Twitter & blog connections, I know they share the habits of online reading that you and I do. The big concern is that we can get *so* immersed in the online world that we *lose* the ability to take the deeper dives that you talk about.

    The best solution, I think, is to keep ALL of those reading skills robust, so that we can skim-&-filter where that’s appropriate, AND immerse-&-focus where that’s the better answer.

    Thanks for the comments, everybody — lots to chew on.

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