Tag Archives: anathem

The Trouble With Long Books

I read for a lot of reasons. One of the stranger reasons I read is because of how much I like entering my reading into my Goodreads profile. You enter the books you’ve read, when you’ve read them, give them a rating and a review (if you want). Basic social media stuff, but that’s now why I love it; I love it because of what Goodreads does with all that data after you enter it.

I love how the data get arrayed out into neat bars and stats based on how many books you’ve read in a year, how many pages, when you’ve read the book versus when it was published, and what the longest book was that you read for that year. Basically, these are stats for a nerd, the way a baseball player might be concerned with improving his batting average or a runner might want to improve her best times. Suddenly, I want to read so I can fill my bars and I want to read a lot, all the time, even if I don’t really feel like it because I have to keep filling those bars. This is also the neurotic motivation I have for gathering Achievements for my Xbox Live gamertag, incidentally.

And hey, as long as it all motivates one to read more books, what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that when you set a reading goal for the year, and if you really focus on hitting it, you very quickly turn into a mercenary about what you’re reading. Sure, you could be reading Infinite Jest right now (which I am) and it could strike you was one of the best books ever written (which, thus far, it does) but it still only counts for one book. It’s over a thousand pages long yet it only moves my “books read” bar up by one tick. It’s over a thousand goddamn pages. I could read three average novels in the same time period!

There was one month (May 2013, according to Goodreads) where I did nothing but read Shogun by James Clavell for almost the entire month! And sure, it was one of the finest books I’ve ever read in my life and absolutely compelling, but an entire month was spent on one book! What about my bars? I have bars to fill.

Sure, there’s the fact that the graph also tracks the longest book that you’ve read, but that also has a flaw: what’s the point of reading a thousand page book if you’ve already got a 1100 pager on that graph? I have Neal Stephenson’s Anathem sitting patiently in my “to read” stack, but what’s the point? That shit only clocks in at a mere 937 pages, which makes it too long for me to stay on track with my monthly book goal, but too short to make “longest book of the year that I read.”

So, what, I’m left with the joy of reading? Maybe I want to marvel at a masterpiece of speculative fiction from a writer who cosistently delivers interesting and intelligent work that always impresses me? Maybe I just want to read something great for the joy of reading?

Fuck that, man. I got bars that need fillin’.

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I Still Prefer Books (And Science Agrees With Me)

There’s probably something odd in blogging about the superiority of the physical page as compared to the digital screen. I don’t particularly love eBooks; as I have enumerated before, I don’t own a tablet or eReader of any sort so my experience is limited to reading on my smartphone. And that’s not terribly enjoyable.

Overall, I’d estimate that out of the 125 books I read last year, about 100 of them were physical, 20 were audio, and the remaining five were electronic text.

Fortunately for me, science suggests that from a neurological perspective, this is the preferred way to read:

The debate between paper books and e-readers has been vicious since the first Kindle came out in 2007 . . . But now science has weighed in, and the studies are on the side of paper books . . . A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

My own experiences support this. I recently finished Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and I read it entirely on my smartphone. I noticed one particular advantage: my book was always in my pocket which otherwise wouldn’t be possible given that Cryptonomicon, like almost everything Stephenson writes, is around 1,000 pages. I was able to read pretty much everywhere I went which really helped rack up some extra reading time throughout the day.

But I can tell that I didn’t absorb it as fully as if I’d been reading a physical version. It’s easier to skim on a screen. You scroll through the text and “psuedo-read” what’s there, seeing without comprehending.

As we increasingly read on screens, our reading habits have adapted to skim text rather than really absorb the meaning. A 2006 study found that people read on screens in an “F” pattern, reading the entire top line but then only scanning through the text along the left side of the page. This sort of nonlinear reading reduces comprehension and actually makes it more difficult to focus the next time you sit down with a longer piece of text.

I noticed the “F pattern” creep into my reading experience. It certainly didn’t help my comprehension, even if it did improve the speed at which I plowed through the book (but since I’m reading for my own pleasure, what’s the point of going so quickly that you don’t realize what you’re doing?)

I also noticed that the “F pattern” effect began to recede as soon as I returned to a physical book. My focus was much sharper.

I have another mammoth Stephenson tome sitting in my “to-read” pile (Anathem, if you’re curious) and it will be interesting to see how the experience compares; two very long works by the same author on the different formats.