A question of choice

Long form vs short form, skimming vs reading

Andrew Sullivan is quitting blogging. “Who?”, you may ask (to which I will respond “Where have you been?”). Andrew Sullivan was one of the pioneer political bloggers before blogging was even a thing, back in 2000, and since then he has consistently been pushing boundaries. He has written for Time, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast, and in 2013 left to start his own media company, The Dish. The business model he eventually settled on, the paywall, showed that good writing does not have to be no-cost, and that there is a demand for clean, ad-free design. He ended up with 30,000 subscribers, generating $1 million of income a year. Pretty good when you consider how often we’re told that paywalls don’t work because people don’t want to pay for content.

So if he was doing so well, why is he quitting? Here is where it gets really interesting. As he explains on his blog:

“…I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged.”

I was literally weeping by the end of the passage. Not only because he conveys so beautifully the emotion of this decision. Also because the decision itself is beautiful, and will, I have no doubt, instruct and inspire us all for many years to come.

As he has always done, Andrew shows us that we have a choice. We don’t like the information overload? Filter. Switch off. Whatever. We feel too much pressure to be “always on”? It really isn’t necessary to be “always on”. Yes, readers come to expect a certain standard. And yes, they will be disappointed when those standards are not met. But that is not the end of the world. Readers are more adaptable and forgiving than we are led to believe.

image by S. Zolkin via Unsplash

image by S. Zolkin via Unsplash

Andrew also highlights, in a very poignant way, the divide between the two mentalities. Much (although not enough) has been said about the change in our reading and learning habits that has resulted from information bombardment and the need for clicks. Nicholas Carr (I’ve written about him elsewhere) puts it beautifully in The Shallows:

“And so we as the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

And while I don’t agree with him on quite a lot of what he implies, on this he is right. It is very, very common these days to lose the ability to focus and think. I don’t blame our current media society, though. And I strongly believe that too much access to information is preferable to not enough.

Obviously we lose some abilities as technology progresses, but we gain so much more. As Enrique Dans pointed out in a thoughtful article a few weeks ago, we don’t know how to use the sextant anymore, but does that make us worse off?

Blaming the technology for our decrease in ability is like blaming the oven because our cake didn’t turn out well. True, cakes have been spoilt by ovens (been there), but generally it’s us not knowing how to use it properly that’s the underlying cause. And while the technology we have in our hands does condition us to a certain extent (one of my current “thinking” research products), ultimately we do still retain control over our faculties. If we want to, of course. For so many it’s easier to not even think about it and to “go with the flow”, or more accurately, “to try to keep up”.

That constant “running to stand still” generates stress. And that is what affects our ability to deep read. The deep reading that Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Carr refer to is an ability that needs regular exercising. Knowing how to read is not the same as knowing how to deep read. Deep reading takes practice and time, of which we seem to have less and less as our obligations multiply. We get married, we have children, we struggle to advance in our jobs or even just to hold on to them. I’ve lost count of the number of intelligent, cultured people in my age bracket who have said to me recently “I can’t remember the last time I read”. They don’t have the time, and if they find the time, they feel guilty because other things are deemed more morally imperative. I have so been there.

image from Death to the Stock Photo

image from Death to the Stock Photo

At the end of 2013 I sold my e-commerce business, after an exceptionally stressful year and a half. I decided to take some time off to get my brain back, because not only could I not read, I couldn’t even think clearly. I started by grabbing a philosophy book off my shelf and working my way through it. It was a short book (The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, if you’re wondering), and it took me ages. I had to re-read sections again and again and again, because I couldn’t concentrate. Then I moved on to history, then back to philosophy, and so on, until I started to make mental connections again. My brain had started working. But it took a while. I had let myself get “out of shape” mentally. Regular workouts got me back in form.

Now that I’ve started work on another business (I’ll tell you more later), I’m trying very hard to maintain my mental exercise regime. On most days I wake up early and spend a couple of hours with my nose in a book. Just like a regular physical workout leaves you feeling great physically, the mental kind does the same for your mind. It feels really good.

But obviously, it’s not for everyone. Many, many people are just not interested, even if they have the time. They’re thrilled with the always-on, quick fix of clickbait and short reads. But that’s the beauty of the age we now live in. We all, to a certain extent, have a choice. I really enjoy the immediacy and breadth of social media. I spend a lot of time on it. And, I’ve always loved reading about ideas and theory. I spend time on that, too. The rush when two concepts connect in the brain to open a window of understanding produces a shot of adrenalin that gets me out of my comfy armchair and sets me pacing around the living room. I love that feeling. Others don’t. For me, finding the time to work on both reading styles is worth the effort. I do not have to limit my choice to one or the other, just as others do not have to choose both. And there is no “correct” reading style. Whether we want to be contemplative, entertainingly superficial or both, with a bit of juggling and a lot of work, we can be.

Having shown us remarkable talent, persistence and personality in one area of communication, Andrew will no doubt now do the same in another. I love his phrase “walk around in my own thoughts”, that sounds like my idea of anti-social bliss. I completely get his motives for making this decision, and am perhaps slightly envious of the stimulating and life-affirming changes he has coming up. I have just programmed myself a reminder to re-read his post six years from now.

That one of the most successful and renowned bloggers of our time is signing off, is huge. That it is for personal reasons, even more so. And it is inspirational. I really do believe in the trite saying that when one door closes, another one opens. Thank you so much, Andrew, for reminding us all of that.

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