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Pretty Good Hat

Being a Better Reader

In Songs About Songs Robert McGinley Myers nicely describes some of the tension in blogging between producing one’s own original material and “chattering” as John Roderick called it recently, or deluding ourselves that meta-commentary is more substantial than it may really be. The best reader-writers are doing more than pulling from the massive volume of internet firehose stuff, synthesizing themes and ideas and presenting it back to their own readers. Which isn’t to say that kind of synthesis isn’t useful, valuable, and important, but unless it has a perspective of its own, well, it’s just a conduit.

Robert McGinley Myers:

But I’m not sure I would draw such a qualitative distinction between primary and secondary source material. Songs are not empirically better than linked list blog posts. I’d rather read a brief but beautifully crafted post on Kottke or Daring Fireball than listen to a lot of the songs currently on the radio.

Yes, but I think the differentiating factor is that a carefully observed link post at Kottke and Daring Fireball is also part of a portfolio. Readers know that Jason and John have a perspective that they bring to what they share — and what they note about it — because those smaller shared bits are part of their long writing histories, even when the added comment is brief (like a “Finally." from Gruber). But let’s be fair to pop music, where an observer-fan might fit this year’s hit albums into a trajectory of musical themes or innovations, and therefore find much more depth and meaning to enjoy than Robert or I will.1

This is actually one reason I really enjoy reading reviews; I’ll never play, watch, read, or listen to most of the reviewed works, but I like understanding what deep subject matter experts/enthusiasts find interesting — or not — in their topics.

This line of thought started with wondering where and how to add value to a conversation about things that interest me or move me somehow. (Why it’s compelling to do this is probably another entire thing that goes back to that ever-since-the-1990s enthusiasm for making stuff online, a stint of being a scholar-blogger, and an ongoing desire — perhaps a desperate one — to do something expressive in a medium that I know a small something about.) So I’ll take as stipulated for now that a good conversation can come from both a) “primary source” (that is, original) material and b) shorter links and sharing that are part of a larger body of work, both of which represent a creative and thoughtful perspective; and then I would make a proposition based on my own dilemma: I’m not a good reader anymore.

Right now my Instapaper Gap (that’s the daily rate at which I actually get to sit down and read over the daily rate at which I accrue things to read) is hovering awfully close to zero. It’s an almost entirely aspirational tool because I’ve developed a terrible habit: I squirrel stuff away partly because I want to read it, but partly because I daydream that I’ll write about it, get engaged in the conversation and interaction and in so doing find something rewarding beyond that which comes from just, simply, reading something good.

I’ll go further: I’m a bad gamer, a decidedly mediocre listener, and an absolutely terrible viewer, because my focus is so torn between enjoying/learning/understanding, on one hand, and meta-level multitasking of all sorts on the other. In my defense, I have a three year-old, work a full-time job, and my resulting time/attention span is bifurcated in all sorts of ways. But come on, would it kill me to re-learn how to focus on things?

So I’m working on being a better reader.2 I’m just reading for its own sake, to appreciate whatever an author wants to make me feel or make me think about. This does not mean being unreflective or passive; rather, it’s letting me enjoy and focus in a different way. The Instapaper gap may not be narrowing, but it’s not approaching zero quite as quickly. And when I feel like there’s something for me to say, the overhead is perhaps a little easier to clear out.

Note: I started this post a couple of weeks ago as a draft and ended up publishing it unfinished and not realizing it. When I realized this was on the front page, I figured it was time to shore up my thinking. If you happened across that half-finished copy, well, thanks for coming back anyway to read some more.

  1. This is where the cultural sociologist would say something about Bordieu and positioning. I wasn’t all that good at cultural sociology, so I’ll refrain, except to note that I know a good distnction when I see it. ↩︎

  2. Here “read” is shorthand for all kinds of cultural consumption. ↩︎