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.