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Friday, December 28, 2018

I Miss the Old Days! (A Decade Ago)

Here ensues a lengthy reflection.
Do you, my reader, read with less attention and perhaps even less memory for what you have read? Do you notice when reading on a screen that you are increasingly reading for key words and skimming over the rest? Has this habit or style of screen reading bled over to your reading of hard copy? … Very important, are you less able to find the same enveloping pleasure you once derived from your former reading self?
  • Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World
It was in the fall of 2007 that I first began writing “Books in Northport,” and while I have no intention of leaving this writing medium, which I have taken with me far from Northport, to Florida for a few winters and, more recently, now to southeast Arizona, as well as posting after the fact about a trip last January to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, I have to confess that I miss my early days of blogging. 

In those early days, I truly had — not always, but often — the sense of initiating a conversation with some of my posts. Comments from readers let me know that people “out there” were connecting to my words and images. On occasion and over time, often with intriguing blogs of their own that I followed, those who commented became my friends, and once in a while our posts and comments intertwined. One of my readers and someone whose blog I followed was a young woman in China whose parents were young enough that I could have been (in some other life) their parents! Neige (she blogged in French) and I loved our visits to one another’s lives.

In those days, from my yellow leather chair, my morning perch that fall and winter when my dial-up connection was so slow that I kept a book by my side to read while waiting for downsized images to upload, I felt like a world traveler, meeting new people, exploring their worlds, and inviting them into mine. Although we were meeting only in digital space, the leisurely nature of blogs tended to slow and concentrate our online attention. In other words, we spent time with each other.

After a while, though, the snake entered the garden. Two snakes, actually. The first was spam. 

I recall the first spam I got, one I initially (naively) took for a real comment, from a real person, until a friend clued me in. The apparent comment went something like this: “Interesting content. I’ll be back to visit again.” Followed by a link. Ah, yes, those links! There was no person on the other end of what looked like a comment, but only a roaming “bot”-snake, planting links wherever it could slither in, links to lure people in to order flowers online, book cruises, and worse. Ugh! Spam threatened to take the fun out of blogging for me. My solution, suggested by a veteran blogger, was to moderate comments. 

Rather than allowing anyone to leave a comment that would appear instantly, as soon as someone (or something) on the other end posted it, I changed my blog settings so that I received notification when a comment was left, and then it was up to me to publish, delete, or mark as spam. For a while, the solution seemed to work okay for most of my readers, though right from the start some were confused by no longer seeing their comments immediately, with the result that they might leave the same comment three times and then e-mail me to say they were unable to post. It was a period of adjustment for us all.

But that was only Phase 1 of problems with moderation. 

Phase 2 developed when the platform upped the ante for people wanting to comment, requiring a Google password and insisting that people wanting to join the conversation jump through visual hoops to prove “I am not a robot.” Good friends told me they tried and tried and finally gave up. 

(At the end of this post, I will come back to address the comment-moderation problem, but the end is — sigh! my poor, patient reader, if you exist at all out there in digital space! — still still quite a way down the line.) 

Need for moderation and problems readers had with moderation: that was the first snake. The second snake was Facebook — and this connects to my opening quote from Reader, Come Home, written a Tufts University professor and researcher whose expertise is in the cognitive neuroscience of reading. Here is a passage from the beginning of her book:

…[W]hen I was a child learning to read, I did not think about reading. Like Alice, I simply jumped down reading’s hole into Wonderland and disappeared for most of my childhood. When I was a young woman, I did not think about reading. I simply became Elizabeth Bennett, Dorothea Brooke, and Isabel Archer at every opportunity. Sometimes I became men like Alyosha Karamazov, Hans Castorp, and Holden Caulfield. But always I was lifted to places very far from the little town of Eldorado, Illinois, and always I burned with emotions I could never otherwise have imagined. 

When I read the blog of the young woman in China or that of the older woman up in the Maritime Provinces of Canada, or even those by someone in the U.P. or right in my own Leelanau County, I too was “lifted to places very far” from my own  old farmhouse. You might think that Facebook does the same thing, since there I can see friends’ posts from all over the world, but while I appreciate those picture windows on distant places, I don’t feel as if I am entering those worlds. The depth isn’t there, and there isn’t time, because one person’s set of photographs from a Caribbean island is only one set in an endless “news feed.” They are postcards rather than letters. As I see it, not every form of online reading and writing is “the same,” any more than any writing that ends up in a physical book to be read is like the content of any other book. Some speed us up, others slow us down.

Facebook relates to the world of blogging not only because both are online, but also because I am not the only blogger who posts links to my blog on Facebook, hoping to bring in readers who would otherwise not seek me out in the longer, more leisurely medium. The results? Not always what I’d hoped. 

Some very good friends, real friends, people I know and even love in my face-to-face world, tell me they have “no time to read blogs.” When I hear that from someone trying to limit his or her online time in general, I understand it better than when the same apologetic excuse — and believe me, no excuse is ever necessary! My blog is there for anyone interested in my world and thoughts, but it is not required reading for anyone! — comes from someone who seems to be, when I do my once-a-day check-in, on Facebook 24/7. Their phones they have always with them! Notifications come with sound alerts whenever a friend posts, and it takes only a moment to “like” or leave a few words of comment on Facebook. To follow a link, on the other hand, and to read an entire newspaper or magazine article or essay or blog post, makes a deeper and lengthier demand. 

And so it happens that most Facebook friends scroll past my links. An altruistic few may “like” or leave a comment based on the link’s image but without following the link to read the blog post. Fewer still are moved to follow the link and read what has sometimes (not always, I admit) taken me quite a while to put together carefully and thoughtfully, occasionally revising over a few days before posting — and I am grateful to everyone who does so! But here the first snake circles back with his poisonous bite, because those readers are the ones most likely to want to leave comments and also most likely to be stymied by moderation roadblocks! Curses!

Cottonwood in Willcox, AZ, a week ago
My meandering, desultory blog suits my musing philosopher’s mind, and I have no desire to leave the slow lane that is my preferred world: books in print — real books! — and reading silently or aloud those books in print; lengthy, thoughtful, exploratory blog posts; walks in woods or fields or deserts with my dog; face-to-face, side-by-side conversations with the Artist and our friends and family; exploring the larger world in search of horses and wildlife, mountains and lakes; thinking about and exploring, also, day to day, my thoughts and those of others, wherever encountered. In short, I do not want my mind to transform itself into a grasshopper, unable to concentrate, impatient with silence, too impatient to follow a complicated narrative or argument!

But I feel bad about restricting the conversation and keeping others out. That’s another problem with Facebook, too, by the way: what’s posted there becomes a conversation among people who have already designated each other as friends. What about potential friends, such as those I met in my first years of blogging? 

Well, so here is my experiment for the beginning of the new year. I am going to change my settings back to eliminate moderation of comments. That should also (I hope) eliminate hassles. I hope so, anyway. Results of the experiment will decide how long I decide to forego moderation. If no one comments — or if there is a tsunami of spam — I may just heave a sigh and concede failure. But let’s try it, eh? 

Now, for starters, has anyone else read Maryanne Wolf’s book or anything else on the subject of how digital reading is changing our brains and our reading habits in general? How many books do you read, how many print news articles, and how much time to you spend reading online? How did you answer Wolf’s questions at the top of this post? Do you worry about the time your children or grandchildren or students are spending on digital media? And what else would you like to read about here on “Books in Northport”? Suggestions welcome.

Happy new year, friends! May peace, health, and happiness be yours!


Deborah said...

So many questions!! Yes, I relate to Wolf's comments about having a less attention to detail when reading online. Yes, I sometimes skim. I spend at least an hour daily reading (or rather, skimming) the NYT and Chicago Tribune after reading my own local newspaper. Delving into a book that captures my attention I prefer the actual book to reading on a Kindle. I like holding a book which seems real to me and creates a connection to the author as well as to the story/subject.

P. J. Grath said...

I'm the same way with what I call real books -- as you know, Deborah! As for newspapers, I prefer print there, too, but find I don't read every word of every article any more. Did my newspaper-skimming habit come from reading online, or do I just not want to dwell on all the horrific details of the news? I think the latter.

Cheri Walton said...

I've had no problem with the way comments were made before, but it will be better to get directly to the point, I think. Since I hear about your posts through email anyway, there are always a few hoops to jump through.

I am a slow, "read-every word" kind of reader anyway and always have been. I don't know how to do it any other way. Since I like to write as well as read I feel I am cheating the author if I miss so much as a comma. When I write I assume every word I write is important. It's like painting, really. It's important to look at how the artist painted as well as what the subject of the painting is..........or for me it is anyway.

I have also taken to buying second hand books on line instead of ordering them for my kindle. It's actually cheaper and so much nicer to hold a real book.

Matthew Case said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Case said...

I hope that by removing moderation you are able to encourage more discussion on the actual blog. It's quite sad the way we sometimes "read" today (e.g., skimming, looking for dumbed-down articles). I don't think you even can approach some works - particularly the ones Marianne Wolf cites such as The Brothers Karamazov - by skimming. For those works, you have to actually dive in. And I think it's the same with a well thought out blog post; If you want to actually engage something you have to make up your mind to do so.

We cannot always be fully present when we read but we can certainly try harder to be so. Or, perhaps we can make an effort to read less (thinking of Facebook scrolling) but read more thoughtfully when we do read.

valerie said...

The warp speed and the relentless boasting cheer of Facebook updates can't be good for our minds in this troubled time, or any time. We need comfort--not just the respite of a good book but even the strange mental comfort, the intermission, at the end of a tragic book.

I love everything about Books in Northport, and have for ten years. Your words for the friendships that developed in the early days of blogging are just right: "we spent time with each other."

Love the Willcox cottonwood.

Deborah said...

It took me a long time to read The Brothers Karamazov because of what you said Matthew - I had to read every word. In many cases I had to pause and think about what I'd read and often go back to re-read.
Cherie I do appreciate what you said about the importance of reading every word the author wrote because that author thought every word important.

P. J. Grath said...

You have all made me so happy! I am smiling and smiling! Cheri, I agree with you completely about writing. I've learned to be more sparing with my use of parentheses, for instance -- but then I still can't resist the long dashes I use in their place. Love editing and revising. Even these comments I have read slowly and repeatedly. Matthew, I hope you are as encouraged as I am by comments on this post. I always expect thoughtful responses from you, and I'm sure you appreciate them from others, also. Valerie, I love what you say about the "strange mental comfort ... at the end of a tragic book." Who but you would think of that? Deborah, we should talk about THE BROTHERS K sometime -- but I'll have to re-read it first, because the only part that made a deep, lasting impression on me was the story and image of the "little onion"!

Thank you for spending time with me here! I love your company, all of you.

P. J. Grath said...

11/29/2019: I'm leaving this comment as a sort of P.S., long after the face of the post, to say that I have returned to moderating comments. I made the decision with some regret, but a recent onslaught of new spam pushed me to it. And then -- delightful surprise! -- after putting moderation back in place, I had four different people jump through the hoops to leave comments on a new post that had spoken to them. So there you are. Or here we are. Or, this is where I am as the end of another year approaches.

Why leave this here on such an old post? Because my stats this morning tell me that, for some reason, this post has had a bump in readership in the last 24 hours. Go figure! This is a strange world....