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What’s the Difference Between Reading Blogs or Books

So I read Emily Gould’s essay on what her novel cost her on the Daily Dot.  (Unfortunately, they removed the post, but you can read it here.)  I stuck with it until the end, even though I considered jumping ship when she started cataloging her cat’s health woes.  She’s a talented writer and an engaging one, but I can’t say that I was emotionally invested in the cat.  Still, I’m glad I made it to the end even though it’s a really really really long piece.

Which is noteworthy because we seem to live in an age where writing pieces are getting shorter and shorter.  Magazine articles are getting shorter, blog posts are getting shorter, and some people don’t even use up all 140 characters on Twitter.  Soon we’ll be reduced to just throwing up single letters.  Or numbers.  We’ll assign all of our most common thoughts a number and there will be a posted key that people can use in order to understand our brief, brief updates.

The length of Gould’s piece (and perhaps it’s because it also rambled) makes me think that maybe I find shorter pieces more enjoyable.  Something longer than Twitter but shorter than 5000+ words.  Here’s a tangential question: where do you fall on the happy reading length continuum?  Do you prefer long novels that are broken up into two or three page scenes?  The brevity of Twitter?  Blog posts or magazine articles that go on for many pages but hold your interest due to the subject matter?  Long chapters with no page breaks?

Anyway Emily Gould outlines the true cost of writing.  Mostly she covers the financial cost of writing.  If you’re writing full-time, you’re not earning money another way.  If you’re spending hours online building your platform, then you’re not doing other work that comes with a clear-cut paycheck.  But she talks about the other cost of spending a lot of time online:

It was miraculous, I wanted to shout into the wind, how much space opened up in your brain when you stopped filling it with a steady stream of other people’s thoughts!

Twitter and Tumblr and even email—anything that rewards constant vigilance and creates repetitive cycles of need based on intermittent reinforcement—were the bitterest foes of the sustained concentration that’s necessary to making worthwhile art!

In other words, reading this blog post or writing your own is keeping you from writing your Great American Novel. (Or, if you’re not in the US, your Great Wherever-You-Are Novel.)  Yet we read other people’s work (such as Gould’s essay) in order to be challenged or inspired.  We go online to engage with people because we’re human beings who long for connection.  And we spend hours “building our platform” because if we don’t, we have no chance of selling that Great American Novel.  Gone are the days when the vast majority of writers had no Internet presence and only a select few were online.  It’s now the inverse.  The vast majority of writers spend time online, and it’s the select few who still publish easily but have no Internet presence.

But it begs the question: why do we treat online time differently from how we treat paper time?  Meaning, if space opens up in your brain when you stop reading other people’s thoughts, why are writers encouraged to read books?  Why do MFA programs have required literature credits?  Why don’t we encourage every writer out there to dump books in the same way that writers encourage other writers to go offline?

I don’t think that I’m more plugged in than I am distracted by books.  I was the kid who carried a book around on the playground during elementary school.  I always have a book tucked into my purse.  I mean, I wouldn’t dream of even going to the grocery store without a book.  (What if the car broke down and I needed to wait for AAA?  Wouldn’t I want something to read?)  I spend about an equal amount of time being distracted by online writing — mostly blog posts but also Twitter and Facebook — as I do offline writing such as magazines and books.

And I don’t consider that time wasted.  I don’t consider book reading OR blog reading time wasted.

A case in point: I took the time to read Gould’s essay and it inspired me to write this post.  It made me look at how much time I’m reading other people’s words vs. putting down my own.  Let’s be frank; I certainly put enough words into the world.  What is my word consumption obligation?  Sort of like carbon offsets protect the world from our environmental impact, what should we take in order to balance the scales with our idea impact?

It’s hubris to think that OUR words are more important than someone else’s words.  That if we read their words and don’t take time to write down our words, that it’s detrimental, even on a personal level.  I think the world will still be as groovy if I only read and don’t write.  And even when I’m attempting to write because that’s my job and I need to turn in writing, it doesn’t really hurt the process to read a little.  If anything, those breaks from putting down my own words help them to come faster when I do sit down to write.

To consider answering emails or responding to a Tweet a waste of time is to consider human connection a waste of time.  It’s nice when we have enough face-to-face connections to have our needs satiated, but I think online connections certainly count towards that daily ration of human contact.

I cringe when I read writers telling people to connect less.  If anything, to be able to write, to observe humanity, to comment on the state of our humanness, we need to connect more.

I’m all for minimizing our personal distractions, but I worry when people talk about unplugging as a panacea.  Because within the advice is judgment: that what we read online is of lesser worth.  While we may enjoy paper publications that have gone through an editor more than personal blogs or vice versa (in the same way that some people prefer restaurant meals over those prepared by a home chef), I would hate to write off one as having more worth than the others.  Sometimes words are just words, and the ideas they express are more important than the way they’re packaged.  But that’s just me.  I find a lot of diamond-in-the-rough blog posts, and I also find a lot of needed-a-better-editor novels.

And vice versa.

17 comments

1 bleu { 03.05.14 at 8:39 am }

It is so interesting that you write about this, this week. I just finished The Goldfinch, which is a long book, almost 800 pages, and I loved it. I have been surprised how much I am using my children’s xmas gifts, their Kobo’s and reading so much more. As a lover of books, their feel and smell, it has been a revelation to me that I am reading much much more using the e-reader.
But I just yesterday was talking to my local librarian, one of them, about how I do not truly feel that spending countless hours reading books is different than spending countless hours reading up on fascinating things online. She felt reading books to be a better choice for herself, but for me I don’t think so.
I read to learn, and to travel in my mind, to escape and to find joy, to grow as a being and to share connection with others. I also go online for the same reasons. And yes at times I am reading junk online, but at times I read junk in books, the difference being perhaps, that when the words are shorter maybe I read a bit more junk. I do not have much patience with a book I truly am not enjoying beyond the 3rd or 4th chapter.
So this is an interesting discussion you bring up, one I have spent time on in my “offline” life, and one I am not spending time with online. And both places are valid, and engaging. And interestingly, when I have this discussion online, I must take more time, be more thoughtful in my responses, even edit y words a bit, and finer tune my thoughts. 🙂

2 Mrs Spock { 03.05.14 at 9:21 am }

I got lost while reading about the cat too.

My frugal self (and that is a hard-won persona), was cringing as I read this. What I mostly take away from this is the lack of planning for a non-steady income. Writing can be feast or famine, especially if you do not have a partner to help smooth over those famine times.

3 loribeth { 03.05.14 at 9:49 am }

I haven’t read the article, and I agree that the Internet can be distracting — but I seem to recall that, pre-Internet, I found lots of other distractions as well. 😉 At work, when things were slow or I just wasn’t feeling the muse, I would read the paper, write letters to my friends, organize my purse, take care of the stack of filing that had piled up, etc. I did read more books back then, but I am certainly reading lots of good articles & blog posts online these days too (and loving the broad access to so much great writing and information).

I know that news articles seem to be getting shorter these days because of our supposed reduced attention spans, etc. — but I’m finding there is getting to be more & more long-form journalism online as well. One of the local papers has been producing in-depth reports as mini-books that you can download onto your computer or e-reader for a small fee.

My one reservation about lengthy books is they are difficult to lug around — that’s when an e-reader comes in handy. 😉 I’m currently reading a book about the Beatles (All These Years: Volume 1: Tune In by Mark Levinsohn) that is almost 1000 pages long — and only goes up to 1962. There are two more volumes planned, presumably of a similar size. And apparently, 1000 pages is the ABRIDGED version; there is an even longer & more detailed version available in the UK (!). I bought the hardcover because I love the Beatles (& I did get a good deal), but I also got an e-version which I have been reading on the commute after I finish the newspapers. Then I go back to the hardcover version later to read the footnotes. It may take me awhile to get through it, but because I know something about the Beatles & their story already, I’m not going to get too lost if I take a break from it now & then. 😉

4 Orodemniades { 03.05.14 at 9:51 am }

Her entitlement and oh, what do they call it, humblebragging, rubbed me such the wrong way when I read that last week.

I don’t care what the length of something is, if I find it interesting. If it’s too short then I’ll complain, especially if it’s fantastic. As long as it ends well, I’m good.

5 Justine { 03.05.14 at 9:54 am }

I do feel like I have to make hard choices, though. I’ve just started reading _The Goldfinch_, and I find that if I’m reading blogs at night, I don’t tend to have time for novels/books … and I also tend to get more sucked into other people’s worlds and increasingly less likely to offer my own contributions. BUT: that’s a personal flaw, not a generalized social problem.

I was just wondering something similar, though, as we prepare to rewrite the content for our blog for incoming students. What makes young people read content online? I feel like those posts are boring, too information-laden, not engaging/social enough … even if it’s useful information. What drives 17-year-old traffic to a blog, and what keeps it there, reading?

6 KeAnne { 03.05.14 at 12:05 pm }

I’ve been responsible for our website at work for years and we hear conflicting opinions about what length pieces need to be: shorter b/c of our fading attention spans or longer b/c if it is engaging content, people will read it regardless of length. I’m more for the latter, but I wonder if the context matters. If I’m looking for basic info or on a commercial site, shorter works. If I’m reading a blog post or article, make it as long as it needs to be as long as the writing is tolerable (at least). I think we do readers a disservice by focusing on the medium: engaging content is still engaging content whether online or off.

I’m glad to see you take on the “unplugging panacea.” I agree 100%. I’ve had more engagement with people the last couple of years thanks to FB and Twitter than I’ve had in real life. I’ve changed my opinions and thinking drastically on serious issues thanks to these interactions. I’ve been pondering for the last year or so the sudden suspicion about the online connection and why we consider it less than an offline one. I wonder if it goes hand in hand with the movement towards urban farming, making your own food and clothes, homeschooling etc. Not saying those are illegitimate choices, but there is something about the rise of Pinterest and crafting and technological skepticism that is connected.

7 Alexicographer { 03.05.14 at 1:37 pm }

Haven’t read the essay or her novel, don’t plan to — who has time 😉 ? Well, no, but seriously, I’m partway through (reading) at least 2 books on my Kindle, ditto 2 (or 3, if you count that one I put down A LONG TIME AGO but really do intend to finish. Really.) paper ones, plus the latest edition of Kiplinger magazine. And then there are the blogs! And this is not counting the reading/writing I do for work. Oh, and I’ve just started reading Harry Potter (for the first time) as DS has developed an interest.

I do think that it matters on some varying-type-of-cognitive-demand and/or distraction metric, whether a written work (whatever its label) is (a) a stand-alone piece, something I can read and understand without it being part of a grouping or dialogue, or (b) part of a conversation (with those really being points fairly distant from each other, though maybe not literally endpoints, along a continuum). So for example I am reading a book on “Accessible [Housing] Design” because this is something interesting to me, and that is mostly an experience-unto-itself, where I read the book but do not engage (by writing e.g. comments on a blog) with others discussing that book and think that when I finish reading the book, I will be “done” with it — not the larger topic, necessarily, but that I will feel that I have “finished that.” Whereas with this blog entry I debated whether to go read the post it comments on (and decided not to), and the novel that references (taking time to do which would clearly mean this conversation had moved on by the time I got around to joining it), and did read the other comments before writing here. And now will probably come back to see what others have said in their comments here, including whether any have referenced mine (unlikely, but not impossible, and if they do, then I may find myself debate the merits of replying to their comment on my comment).

And I do think (for me at least) that writing is very different from talking, so that if I e.g. discuss with someone I bump into, the accessible design book, that is a very different experience with very different cognitive demands than engaging in written/posted discussion (of that book or anything else).

I’m not sure of the significance of all this, but I do think the two are different things, with different demands and different propensities to distract from more “important” business (or activities) — however defined. Though don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly capable of staying up until 4 a.m. because I can’t put a book down before I finish reading it (but still, once I’m done — I’m done).

8 JustHeather { 03.05.14 at 2:08 pm }

Ok, I’m going to reference Alexicographer. 😉 I agree that there is a difference between books/offline and blogs/online in as such that the experience is different. Books are mostly an individual experience, with maybe some discussion about said subject, where as blogs are a group experience and have the potential to create a whole discussion, more readily and whenever you have time (not waiting for a 2nd party) and you can come back to continue a discussion at your leisure.

However, words are words are words… Personally, if a subject interests me or is well written (and interests me), I am willing to read a lot of words. Subject in point: The Outlander series. It is 7 books long, with an 8th on the way (later this year!!!) and each book is roughly 1 000 pages and this is my 3rd time reading the series. In this case, I am thankful they are long, but still I don’t think the series will be long enough once it is over.

Other times, we don’t need a long bit of text to convey our thoughts and that is perfectly fine too.

9 Ellen { 03.05.14 at 2:17 pm }

I gave up reading physical books a long time ago; I listen to audio books on a portable device *all the time.* So, while doing housework, while traveling and running errands alone, while running, swimming (yeah waterproof kit!), and, if I have time to just relax, while knitting. So, “reading” happens as part of other things; it hasn’t been an activity unto itself for years and years. While some people may find that appalling, I’m pretty happy about it. I read so very much, and yet, it doesn’t take me any time at all.

I tend to read very little on the internet; a few select blogs (I love this one, and a very few others), news, facebook, I do a lot of travel research. But, much of my time on the internet I would describe as ‘procrastination time,’ so it’s not really meant to be so very in depth or deeply satisfying. If I want to be deeply satisfied, I can turn on my audio book and fold some laundry. 😉

10 Mali { 03.05.14 at 7:40 pm }

Most authors say “read widely” when asked for advice on how to become a writer. I don’t read as many books these days – blogs and other internet stuff takes up more time. But I think I read more deeply – rather than just reading novels (which I love) – as I now read more non-fiction, more essays (and blogs) that make me think, etc. I’ve recently discovered brainpickings.org (via a FB friend) and I love it.

I love being caught up in a book though – I’m currently making my way through Eleanor Catton’s much-acclaimed The Luminaries. It’s 832 pages, and that was daunting, till I realised that each time I read something in it, I smile or I am intrigued, and so I’m taking my time with no pressure. There are times though when I want simple escapist fluff to fill my mind, and will download something easy for my Kindle app on my iPad.

I love reading on my Kindle apps. I can read on my iPad, or if I’m waiting for a friend somewhere, I can even read on my phone. And I don’t have to lug around a book or worry that I’m getting the corners all dog-eared from too much time in my handbag. And I love Pocket for that reason too – I can download articles, and read them offline when I have a spare moment.

But yes, there are times when I feel I just have to clear my email, write a few blogposts, catch up on blog reading and commenting, before I can actually do any work of my own. (Kinda what I’m doing now). But that’s my problem, and a problem of scheduling, not of being overwhelmed with other people’s thoughts.

I did like this though”

“I said, “It soothes me.” He said, “It agitates you.” ”

Sounds like a conversation my husband and I would have about the internet.

11 loribeth { 03.05.14 at 8:04 pm }

@Mali: Me & my husband too!! Just last night, in fact!! He said, “You’re always on the computer! Why can’t you just relax?” I said, “I AM relaxing!” lol

12 A. { 03.06.14 at 4:44 am }

When I was in grad school, I was observing at a local school district, and the chairperson was explaining that students’ ability to write long, sophisticated sentenced had declined as they shifted their curriculum to include more contemporary fiction–less Dickens translated to simpler sentence construction. It’s just a reminder how much our writing is predicated on reading exposure, and for that reason I think there is some validity to the sort of elitist attitude that books are better, not only for feeding perspective but shaping style. I think online texts tend toward brevity (as you said) under pressure to churn out what’s clever and pithy or else your reader threatens to skim and abandon ship for one of the six other tabs already open in the browser. I liken it to the difference between a shot of tequila versus a hot cup of chamomile sipped and savored–is one really better than the other? No, I think there’s room in life for both, but tequila alone will leave you drunk and dizzy. I love reading this blog, but curling up with one of DFW’s essay collections nourishes my writing in ways that are sorely absent in the media-blits, pinball machine atmosphere of 21st century life.

Did you even make it to the end of this comment?

13 A. { 03.06.14 at 4:49 am }

Not to mention my total inability to proofread text on-screen: there’s something special about paper 🙂

14 Alexicographer { 03.06.14 at 10:28 am }

@JustHeather, shoutout on the reference :). @A yes, yes I for one did make it to the end of that comment (and I think it makes a good point).

15 a { 03.06.14 at 3:38 pm }

Here’s the difference I find between reading a (physical or electronic) book and reading online content: If I stop in the middle of a book, I will go back to it and finish it (Probably. Unless I give up on it). If it’s online, even with all the tools like evernote the your blog round-up…if I get called away and have to close my browser, I’m most likely never going back. In that sense, the internet is more of a short-term thing, at least for me.

16 a { 03.06.14 at 3:39 pm }

*and* your blog round-up

17 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 03.14.14 at 11:07 am }

“We’ll assign all of our most common thoughts a number and there will be a posted key that people can use in order to understand our brief, brief updates.”

Ok, so, I actually do this a bit. With certain people.

But in general I think long form is coming back. Blog posts – not yours, perhaps, but in general – are longer on average than I remember them being in 2006/2007 (say) and I think the reason for that is all the really short stuff has gone to twitter and Facebook. Remember when people used to write two-sentence blog posts? Without pictures?

But that wasn’t the main point. I think the internet is generally more distracting than books because of the way in which it grabs your attention. It rewards a certain type of half-focus. Part of it is the sidebars and pop ups and push notifications and ringtones and part is the nature of the screen you look at and how your eyes and brain process that type of visual input vs paper. Part of it is social – it’s just more acceptable to interrupt someone on a smart phone than reading a book.

But you can choose to use digital media differently, you just have to make a more conscious effort, set your defaults differently, choose bits which reward more sustained attention, etc.

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