I'm reading. Seriously.

By Deane Barker on March 4, 2007

Why does “reading” get confused with “surfing the Net” so much?

I’m struggling lately with the concept of a hobby, and why I don’t have one. It seems that everything I do is in some way connected with my company. I have no balance.

I got to wondering the other day if I had ever had a hobby. Then I remembered that, at one time, I liked to read. I still do, however, I really only read books that have to do with work. Looking over at my nightstand, I have Design Patterns (dense), Managing the Professional Services Firm (also dense), Communicating Design (unexpectedly tedious), The Myth of the Paperless Office (stone-cold fascinating), etc. The only two books not specifically related to work are Mere Christianity (great) and You on a Diet (weak and pandering).

It’s 4 a.m., and I can’t sleep. Just before writing this post, I read through a great Time magazine series of shorts on the Top 25 Crimes of the Century. I felt vaguely guilty while I was doing this, because there’s always work to do and I should be doing it instead of screwing around surfing the Net.

But was I? Or was I reading? God forbid, was I actually reading for pleasure about something not somehow related to work? Cripes, I think I was.

And that’s my point, really. Where did the assumption come from that if I’m sitting down in my recliner with my trusty laptop, I’m just screwing around on the Net or working when I shouldn’t be? Why is it inherently more noble if I have some black marks on wood pulp sitting on my lap? (thanks Corey)

A few years ago, I read Bill Bryson’s entire A Short History of Nearly Everything on ebook and then I wrote about the experience. Was that reading? Of course it was, but it seems less so in retrospect since it was on a Toshiba Satellite rather than hardback.

Does it have something to do with length and depth? My experience with Bryson aside, most reading on the Net is more like my experience with the Time series – short nuggets of information that you can hit and run. This is because our attention span is inherently shorter on the Web. I touched on this some years ago when I tried out software for reading print publications electronically:

While this stuff is cool in its own right, it highlights one of the big problems with the Web: it’s tough to keep your attention on Web content, because the Web is ever-changing and it’s so easy to get distracted. Hyperlinks beckon you on to more content and you know that different...stuff, is just a bookmark click away.

What I found when reading content designed for print, was that I spent more time reading it. I would actually read an entire article, rather than just skim it, and I could actually be semi-contemplative about something, instead of rushing to finish so I could move onto the next thing. There was an unmistakable sense of peace about the entire process that I’ve just never gotten from Web content.

I still think this way. It’s tough reading something while hyperlinks fight for your attention. Ironically, it’s even tougher to read something when there are no hyperlinks in the text. I’ve always thought that hyperlinks in text provide a “relief valve” of sorts for long stretches of text that somehow makes them more palatable. Yes, there’s a lot to read there, but look – hyperlinks! If you get stressed in the middle of it, there’s somewhere else to go.

I’ve totally lost my point now. I think I’m just irritated that my wife thinks that me and my laptop equals “working” or “screwing around surfing the Web.” Why can’t it mean “reading”?

Next time you’re sitting somewhere with your laptop, looking intently at the screen and not typing, and someone asks you what you’re doing, why can’t you just answer “reading” and not feel like you’re making an excuse?

Or is it just me?

Comments (8)

Andy Thompson says:

You aren’t alone, in fact. I have quite a few books in PDF format that I am dying to read. However, I’ve yet to find a suitable solution (outside of the auto-scrolling feature in Acrobat Reader) that allows me to comfortably read them.

I’d love to find something soon – else I may be tempted to print them off on my laser printer (at two pages per printed page – and two-sided, of course).

aaron says:

The only reading I do for myself is online. If I’m away from my computer, my news, information, and stories come from an iPod. That’s it. Anything else that I have to read in paper form requires my signature at the bottom of it.

If you see a book in my hands, there’s a two year-old in my lap.

Dave says:

I can relate with that totally. I do spend a fair amount of time at home during the evenings with my trusty PowerBook on my lap, reading this or that blog or news site, or maybe an e-book or something from Bartelby or Classical Library (most recently, a little Tolstoy). There are also times when I’ll be finishing something from work, or doing something for church, answering an email, or sometimes writing something for my own blog. If my wife walks through the room, she’ll invariably give me the look, which leads to me feeling guilty. So I usually stop & go do something else.

The funny thing is that her reaction is totally different if she sees me with a book (most recently, James Herriot) instead of my laptop. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a self-help title, or a software/hardware manual from work; no sign of the look. I’ve often thought to ask her about that, but... Maybe this post will be a good icebreaker for that conversation. Thanks, Deane.

One thought to add; broadband access and wireless networking have made reading like this much easier. I remember my first try at reading something on Bartelby before the broadband & wireless; the phone cable stretched across the room, having to wait for the modem to dial up after lingering a little long on the last page, the two year old pushing the laptop out of the way so I can read Winnie the Pooh to him one more time... Hyperlink distractions aside, the content is much more accessible, and my slightly older kids are less apt to climb onto my lap.

Deane says:

The funny thing is that her reaction is totally different if she sees me with a book (most recently, James Herriot) instead of my laptop. It doesn?t matter if it?s a novel, a self-help title, or a software/hardware manual from work; no sign of the look.

Oh, totally. That was my point exactly.

Your wife and my wife know each other. You talk your wife into it, then have her talk to mine.

greg says:

Face it Deane...all you do is work. Thus, reading is mearly a coffee break in front of your screen.

daniel says:

Wait, is Christianity a hobby?

Corey V. says:

You’re welcome, Deane.

You have to admit there’s a nostalgic allure to the printed word. I’d hate to see you technoterrorists rid the world of the printing press.

Of course, I like to go to used bookstores and paw through old books filled with germs and snot and other unsavory leave-behinds. So maybe I’m the weird one.

Jason says:

Amen Brother. My wife calls my computer “Your Square Headed Girlfriend”. There must be something more constructive for me to do with my time, right!? Anyway, I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of a true electronic ink book with paper pages and everything. www.eink.com. The best of both worlds. By the way, if you like C.S. Lewis, try Charles Williams. He’ll blow your mind.