Physical Books (and Such)

9:22 PM

I don't read as many books as I used to, and I wonder why.

Before:

Growing up in Mississippi, the son of a minister, books were the swiss army knife of childhood survival. I had to read as much as possible to understand the overwhelming guilt that is the reformed Presbyterian's constant companion and to wield the irrationally large words required to defend that guilt as good, godly, honorable, desirable and prosecute it as an equally detestable, abhorrent thing.

Books were also one of the best respites from the theological gauntlet which never seemed to end. I used to be just as comfortable in 10 lbs tomes like the New York Public Library Desk Reference or dictionaries of cultural literacy or an early 1970s edition of Encyclopedia Britannica as I was in Tolkien, Hemingway, Dahl, Herbert, Clawell or Bradbury. If it was in the home or school library, I probably read it at least twice.

This continued until I returned from Iraq, when I was 24. Up to this point, I also spent nearly as much of my time consuming every other form of media. I had collected upwards of 1,000 CDs, more than 30,000 tracks in my whatever-was-before-iTunes collection. I had 700 DVDs of movies and shows I bought and watched, at least twice--and I had watched at least 3 times that amount between renting and going to the theater.

Then:

Abruptly, the whole pattern of my consumption shifted. Starting at age 25 and with increasing severity, I had developed an impatience. If consumption did not begin yielding quick returns on investment--be it pleasure, edification or even frustration and irritation, I terminated it. I found myself no longer willing to risk my time (now a scarcer resource) on anything which wasn't easily converted into value. Fewer books, fewer albums, fewer films.

Now:

I read one physical book last year, Game of Thrones. Similarly, my consumption of other media is way down. While this might seem like a loss, I'm not yet sure. I still read as much as or more than I ever have. I've format shifted, in a way. Now, I follow 150 or more content feeds from blogs across the spectrum, various syndicated streams from news sites and whatever falls into the else bucket.

Of course, one of the very best value-added features of reading a novel or watching a great film is the transformative nature of the experience. You read King Rat, and (if you're like me) you begin to root for the protagonist as Clawell carefully scopes the action and the drama to lure you into liking this particular abomination. You are pulled all the way through the rabbit hole and then he shreds the veil. You learn something you didn't know about yourself, something uncomfortable, something challenging. And that's good. A book can expose you for who you really are but weren't able to grok by yourself.

This cathartic scab-ripping is important, at least to me; but it's much harder consuming short articles, essays and blurbs. It requires internal combustion to drive it. Vigilance. Doubt.

I still haven't read Crime and Punishment, and I know in my gut that I'm a weaker person without it; yet it continues to collect dust as it eyes me, passive-aggressively from my bookshelf.

Maybe it's impulsiveness that keeps me jumping from feed to feed, and maybe it's unhandled optimism that allows me to persist the notion that this behavior is OK. Still, I'm not certain.

It is different.

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