Learning to be unproductive
I listened to a podcast the other week where Ezra Klein interviewed Maryanne Wolf about reading. I was fascinated when Wolf described how we read and how reading digitally varies from reading in print.
…[T]he affordances of the digital medium, which enhance the speed in which we’re reading and focusing on vast amounts of information, multitasking and being entertained, if you will, being engaged at that level. All of that actually takes away from the ability to use the full circuitry — the full circuitry which includes using your background knowledge to infer, to deduce the truth value, to feel what that author is feeling in a work of fiction, to understand a completely different perspective.
And I’ve thought about that a lot since hearing it, Wolf goes on to say:
All of that takes time. The print mediums affordances advantage the giving, the allocation of time to words, concepts in a way that when we skim we simply don’t have the same amount of time to process. So plasticity changes the nature of attention. Attention is very sophisticated and complex. But the amount of attention that we have is going to be influenced by all the distractions that you just discussed as you framed my question. But it will lead, ultimately, to the diminution of the time necessary for the insights at the end.
And there are times when I equate quanity over quality. When you live in a productivity culture that is constantly telling you to be productive above all else, you often don’t slow down, you want to check things off the list, even the things that are supposed to be fun, enjoyable, a hobby! Many folks have reading goals, and in my case I often have an idea in my head about when I’ll finish a book, or a sewing project, or a knitting project but not so much a firm goal. The reality is that part of the enjoyment is slowing down, the process of knitting each stitch or sewing each seam, or, yes, reading each word.
In the last year I’ve read more print books than probably the five years previous. I realized that in my library system the print books are available and sitting on shelves when often the digital versions have long hold times. I’m not totally sure why, but I think being in a rural community is part of why, getting to the library isn’t always easy or convenent for folks. So I read a lot of print in the last year with my trusty book light and I really enjoyed it. I slowed down, and was able to flip back and forth and reread sections.
I want to stress that there is nothing wrong with a goal if it gets you doing a thing more, we’re all motivated differently, but I think for the next phase of my reading life (and my hobbies as well), I want to really slow down. I’m already planning to reread some books that I can’t stop thinking about, but I’m also planning to read slowly, taking notes at times, thinking more. It also means how I talk about my reading may change on this site, I’m not sure, I’ll be feeling this out as I go.
It all comes down to a concerted effort to stop using productivity as my barometer. When I sit at the dinner table with G and we talk about our days, I’d rather say that I had a good day then that I had a day where I got lots of shit done. I want to take the time to let it all sink in which may mean I’m looking out the window doing nothing at times.
Note: this entire line of thinking also got me thinking about the quote Mandy cites from Mary Ruefle on her site and the fantastic idea of wasting time.