I haven’t read any books yet this year. Don’t worry. I am okay. I haven’t torched my To Be Read piles. I have been reading other forms of narrative. I didn’t mean to set about on the experiment but now that I find myself a month into it, I find myself interested.
Sometime late 2020, I switched my digital subscriptions for both The Atlantic and Wired over to print. They now arrive in the mail which I find tremendously exciting. I adore the writing, ideas and design of both publications but realized that something important was missing from the experience of reading them on the iPad. I enjoyed the magical convenience of reading on the iPad, but finally conceded reading that way had become a sterile experience, a sacrifice of the senses in exchange for digital gluttony. Reading magazines on screen, I gorged myself on the lines of words, all laid out in digital rows of neatly flowable text, but never really tasting any of it. When I introduced the habit of commonplacing, the situation was made worse by the need to copy and paste passages from one digital document into another. Now, I am reading gorgeous, interesting, varied essays with both page and pen in hand. I directly mark the text to flag passages for rescue into my commonplace keeper and when I am done I type out the passages or notes and then recycle the magazine. I bend, fold and flag the pages and when I am done I drop the issue into recycle, an act of grateful finality akin to wiping one’s face with a nice cloth napkin.
My reading of print magazines brought something important back into my reading life. Also, print magazines do not hide. They make themselves seen. They are a house guest that insist on hospitality. They do not disappear when the iPad light goes off. They demand active reading or active ignoring. Like bratty, delightful children.
And so, late last year I found myself splitting time between the reading of books and the reading of magazine articles. In December, I discovered my local public library offers a digital reading app called Hoopla. Having just extolled the pleasures of reading my magazines in print, you may wonder why a new digital reading app would pull me off the bookly path. Hoopla is a platform offering together eBooks, eAudiobooks, and also graphic novels.
I started listening to audiobooks. At first, it was Esther Perel soon followed by similar authors who write on topics of deep interest but for which I do not necessarily want to be seen carrying around the titles in hard cover. Also, audiobooks fit into my ears which mean they fit into the uncrowded spaces of my life — while driving, walking, working out. Listening to books is a different way of engagement. With the right narrator (Esther Perel reads her own) listening is its own kind of bookish intimacy. And so down the audiobook rabbit hole, I go.
But the main draw of Hoopla for me is the availability of graphic novels. Many thousands of them, entire series, lushly illustrated and easy to carry and read on iPad. Being a nerd with mostly nerd friends, you might have assumed I have been reading graphic novels since I was a kid. Not so. I could never allow myself to explore them because of the cost. Comics and graphic novels are expensive. When you fall into love with a series, you are trapped. There is no escaping. When this happens as a kid, you just accept that all your discretionary income belongs to Marvel and DC and Vertigo and Dark Horse. When you are an adult, giving them your money means you might not eat or wear clothes. You are likely to get wet when it rains.
With the discovery of Hoopla, I have become a 47 year old catching up on a lifetime of missed stories. There is no end to the paths I may wander.
And so, last week I realized what’s actually happening for me isn’t really about print versus digital. It is about variety of narrative form. There are many ways to tell a story. Book length stories are only one.
This isn’t about attention span. I still adore book length stories but I wonder how that mode of reading became my sole focus. As I try to make my way back into the habits of writing, I find myself unclear how to write a short story. This is likely because I read so few short stories.
Thus, the realization that the ability to write widely comes from the experience of reading widely. And so, I find myself curious about the many forms narrative takes and how each allows something different from the other forms. I find myself curious to know if my stuckness has been an actual stuckness of ideas or if, instead, it has been self-imposed limits on what I assume to be the shape of narrative.
I have decided to lean into this experience a bit, make an experiment of it. Not necessarily stopping to read the book length stories. That thought makes me sad. But to mix in a heavy amount of articles, essays, audio, graphic novel and short story. Let it all mix in a pastiche. See where it takes me.