Several small splashes

If a book be an ocean, the Internet has turned our reading habits into a series of small wading pools.

That’s the sense I get from this not-quite-a-lament by Carrie Frye:

[T]he Internet for all its virtues — and let me interject here and say that I love the Internet, some of my best friends are the Internet, etc. — has given me an overly inflated sense of my own ability to learn and appreciate new things. I’ve always liked to read several books at once (do you want to read a book about volcanoes tonight, or a novel? Who knows? Better have them both with you!), but this weekend I counted and I had some twenty books in different stages of being read around the house, ones I felt I couldn’t bear to return to the library or put back on their proper shelves because “I’m reading it.” I’ve fallen into the habit of bringing a stack of three to four into bed with me at night — picking them up from around the house as I turn off lights like a grocery shopper ambling through the produce section picking whatever pretty fruit strikes the fancy. On the one hand, thus has it always been — people who like books will have books in their bed, will have far more books on their reading list than they will ever finish, etc. On the other, I think when you casually read a couple hundred little news items, interesting posts and articles online in day, it get frightfully easy to carry a glib sense of engagement away with you from the computer — to want to click along to the next book whenever you’re bored. And on some deeper level, I wonder if the Internet with its ready and immediate access to anything I want to know, has given me a false sense that I’m capable of knowing it, i.e., that I can suck in all that knowledge like Evil Willow draining books at the magic shop. Even as my reading habits have gotten sloppier, have I come to think I’m someone who’s capable of reading three or four books before bed? That I’ll wake up and suddenly be the man who knew everything? Put another way: If the Internet is infinite, has it made me forget that I’m finite?

I keep two or three books going at any given minute, and I’m not always sure which one I’ll pick back up next. As for the inflated sense of one’s learning capacity, I’m relying on it: the moment I start letting the brain zone out is the moment I transform from merely old and decrepit to old and decrepit and demented, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not.

The stack of stuff beside my bed — books, magazines, newsletters, what have you — is now at least as high as the bed itself; to put something away and shut myself down for the night requires a pronounced stretch.


  1. fillyjonk »

    3 November 2009 · 5:41 pm

    Count me as another person reading too many books at a time. I began to worry that it was a sign of adult-onset ADD (look! a bird!) but my mother assures me that even as a very early reader, I was always biting off more than I could chew. (She once told me of being very taken aback – I do not remember this – when I had selected my usual nearly-as-tall-as-me stack of books at the library, a woman snapped at me, “Did you LEAVE ANY for OTHER PEOPLE to read?” Because seriously, what do you say to a shrew who would rain on a child’s desire to read? I mean, if you’re a gentle person not given to cursing like my mother is.)

  2. McGehee »

    3 November 2009 · 9:18 pm

    If I can keep from putting it down before I really get started reading it, I will devour a book, and am highly unlikely to try to start reading another one until I’m finished.

    I have begun taking longer intermissions during the read/feast, to do such other things as surf the web or watch a little TV. I can’t picture myself ever juggling multiple books, though. It might happen someday, but I’d be very surprised.

  3. Brian J. »

    3 November 2009 · 9:21 pm

    One fiction for fun. One nonfiction for learning. One “bedtime” book composed of newspaper columns or easily broken segments so I can turn off the light in a couple moments without losing the thread of a larger narrative. And sometimes one classical piece I’m shirking while reading the other three.

    Anything that goes back onto the shelf does not count against the total.

  4. unimpressed »

    3 November 2009 · 9:29 pm

    I work on multiple books at a time as well, three or four at a time. One stays by my chair in the living room, one in the bathroom, and one by the bed. I have an iPod with multiple books (usually several in a series) loaded on it that I carry with me to work to read during lunch and breaks.

  5. Lynn »

    4 November 2009 · 2:17 pm

    I’ve never tried to read more than two books at a time and my habits haven’t changed all that much since the Internet. The only differences are that now one of my two books is likely to be on the Internet (I read the entire unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire online. (I think I’m entitled to keep bragging about that in perpetuity.) ) and it takes me longer to get through a book. Pre-Internet I could read a book in only a few days, occasionally only one day; now it usually takes several weeks.

  6. Bob Hank »

    4 November 2009 · 8:49 pm

    You could always sleep on the floor.

  7. CGHill »

    4 November 2009 · 8:55 pm

    Not a chance. Either I’ll land on the rug and I’ll itch, or I’ll be on the parquet and I’ll be iced over.

  8. Bob Hank »

    4 November 2009 · 9:05 pm

    I’m totally lost.

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