Your Reading Habits — Post Internet

What has happened to your reading habits ever since the rise of the internet, blogs, Facebook and Twitter?

Ten years or so ago I wasn’t doing much on the internet other than a few e-mails. I spent evenings reading classics literature (like Euripides) and essayists (like Samuel Johnson), we watched sports, and work was mostly work and home was mostly home. That has changed significantly since the rise of internet and my own participation in that world with the Jesus Creed blog.

I wonder if you would ponder this set of questions some and tell us what you find:

What has changed in your reading habits? Do you read novels less? Magazines less? Books less? Do you read the same or more? Has the internet made you more of a scanner instead of a reader?What percentage of your reading is now internet reading?

Would you call internet reading “reading”?

David Ulin, in his new book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time , examines dimensions of these changes. The book is a gentle stroll but one thing he does is emphasize how reading has become harder because the internet is so much of a distraction, and his book embodies that very distraction because the plot of the book is a question from his son about Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, but about every time Ulin is about to tell us something new about his interaction with his son he get distracted with another thought about reading.

Some thoughts, mostly inspired by Ulin:Reading requires silence; silence is harder to find in an internet age. But the kind of silence that is needed is not quiet but a silence that is absent of distraction. The distraction of the internet age is one that seduces us into thinking that we can, if we read more e-mails or more tweets, be in the know or more up-to-date. There is a genine anxiety about not keeping up. 15 years ago we didn’t try to keep up with most of what drives us.

The internet provides mostly information, endless and never-ending. Reading probes into wisdom through reflection. Internet reading is an emotional hit and run; reading a good book, undistracted, for hours at a time digs deeper. There is a difference between an informed brain and a literary brain.

Reading a book well means entering into a history of conversation into which that book fits. The internet is not a conversation but a buzz of information, disconnected and disconnecting. Another way to say this: The internet provides story after story but there is not Story into which the stories fit.

We carry around in our pockets an iPhone or an internet-connected phone. That gadget is a more powerful computer than anyone had a decade or so ago. But the gadget doesn’t create more leisure for us. Instead it shaves time from our leisure. Why is this so?

Genuine reading draws into history and creates memory. Internet information-shaped reading is an assault on both history and time. Real reading taps into emotions, while internet reading mostly deadens our emotional life.

On memory: internet reading doesn’t ask us to remember; it remains there for us to bookmark. Real reading generates memory because it leads us into the world of an author and a story and a book that is interconnected to other books. Why remember when you can look it up?

Internet reading is about being connected; real reading, book reading, means being disconnected and lost in the world of the book.

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  • My reading habits have changed, although not necessarily for the worse. The primary loss has been that I don’t read nearly as much fiction these days. The primary gain is that I learn more useful information from reading essays and blogs.

    I still do not spend much time in email, and social networking consumes a bare minimum of my time. Facebook was a passing fad for me, and I probably check my Facebook page only once or twice a week.

    I do miss some of my escapes into good novels as I have gone from reading probably a couple of dozen novels a year down to probably only five or six a year. I do still read a lot of non-fiction books, but I probably spend twice as much time reading essays or blogs than I do my books. From time to time I purge my google reader of blogs that I find are unproductive for me. Perhaps I ought to purge more and try to fit a couple more novels in a year.

  • This strikes a deep and resonant chord. Over the past decade, my reading life has become like a rock skipping across a pond. Why study when you can just Google for the answer? And, when you do try to read, every page raises a question which the nearby computer can answer.

    “Hamlet’s Blackberry” by William Powers is the most helpful book on this topic I’ve read. It helped me to kick the addiction to the Internet and “go deep” again. I now take a weekly Sabbath from the Internet/email. Just sit in a place and read. Novels really helped me over the hump. They gave/give the experience of reading. Now, I’m stepping back into non-fiction.

  • Diane

    I still read deeply and widely but notice the difference between reading books and absent-minded internet browsing–as Ed Chin says, the internet reading is like a rock skipping across a pond. However, in defense of the internet, it allows me to participate actively in discussions like these. That’s an unquestionable added value in my mind.

  • Jason Lee

    You can’t dive for pearls in little 5 or 10 minute segments of time… you’ve got to go deep under water for much longer to actually find, retrieve and surface with the pearl. I find that reading substantive things requires large blocks of time (maybe a minimum of 45 minutes). It seems to require an extra level of discipline to not allow social stimulation on the internet (eg, email, fb, blogs) to break into and fragment those large blocks of substantive reading. Before the availability of these media this particular competition to substantive reading wasn’t there for me. Because of these things, I deactivated my fb account 3 years ago. I’ve never regretted that. I think I’ve read more books as a result.

    Apparently college students do better too without fb:

  • Georges Boujakly

    I do more reading on the Internet than I used to. But books are the main stay still and will be. Jesus Creed is my go to blog because its representation of the “Reading Field” is wide and varied. What interests me little, I skip, hop, and jump over. What is of much interest, I read deeply.

    Is it then more about the interests than the medium? Is it that people’s interests are changing? Is bite-sized knowledge triumphing over expansive wisdom as the therapeutic has over the religious?

  • Pat

    Good points. I find that I do more scanning than reading now and I don’t like that. I find that when I get my Newsweek in the mail each week, I scan over stories unless there’s something I find truly interesting. I also find that I’m having to discipline myself more to read through lengthy articles in the Sunday paper and I don’t like that. I’m a bookworm and have been since a child, but I do notice the difference in my reading habits and I know it’s connected to the time I spend online. And while internet reading is more about connecting, there are some legitimately good things out there like Jesus Creed 🙂 that are informative and if you’re a thoughtful person, you take in that information, ruminate on it and then hopefully act on it. So there are advantages to online reading, but there are definite disadvantages. As with most things, we have to work on creating a balance so we don’t miss out on the best of both worlds.

  • Well, for one who grew up with the internet (I’m a junior in college) I really don’t have a way to compare “post internet” reading with “pre internet” reading. By the time I began reading substantively, the internet was in full swing. I would say, though, that even though I spend a lot of time reading blogs, essays, news articles, etc… on the internet, I spend just as much time or more reading books. Blogs, news articles, online essays and the like often give a little taste to a particular subject. If I am interested in the subject, I am motivated to read something more substantive about it, and this means, as earlier posts have mentioned, a reflective reading. This usually entails books. I don’t read a lot of fiction, and what I do read is usually viewed as part of the literary canon, like Shakespeare or Steinbeck.

    As for social media and the like, I confess that I am a junky. Twitter and Facebook, though, serve fantastic purposes. These bite size pieces of information deliver a tiny taste. Reading through the Twitter feeds I follow, or glancing at my news feed on Facebook, gives me a sense of what is relevant in any given moment. There are usually all manner of links posted in both Facebook and Twitter to external sites, usually news sites or blogs. Following the links on the pieces of information I am interested in allows me to have a slightly bigger taste. From there I can choose to delve deeper (usually involving books on the subject.)

    I don’t think books are dying out, or people’s desire to read substantive works is changing; people are merely better equipped, because of the internet, to preview the sort of in-depth reading they want to do. I mean, I am a twenty year old college student and my personal library contains well over 300 titles.

  • While there are inevitably times when the internet distracts me from times I should reading, it actually has served me more than anything. The recommendations, reviews, etc. have helped me be more discerning in my reading. Further, I consider reading (some) blogs as better spent than reading some books.

  • While there are inevitably times when the internet distracts me from times I should reading, it actually has served me more than anything. The recommendations, reviews, etc. have helped me be more discerning in my reading. Further, I consider reading (some) blogs as better spent than reading some books.


  • The internet has wrought vast changes to my reading habits.

    But I have to disagree with the standard consensus about the negative and pronounce it to be on the whole, a great positive, an enriching factor that far exceeds the previous state on a logarithmic scale.

    First, what was lopped out — magazines, newspapers and a portion of library book borrowing. But I believe my ~2000+ Google Reader RSS subscription feeds more than aptly supplant that fare. I fret over the loss of serendipity, but I’ve been browsing the internet since I had GEnie / Prodigy accounts in 1990, so I have a pretty disparate and extensive reach, though I still experience joy in discovering new net outpost treasures.

    Second, reading on screens does lend itself to more of skimming and scanning mode. But that’s not necessarily detrimental. I’ve found that my retention and recall (I remember in college days being able to “visualize” text precisely) have suffered, but I still pluck out keywords and highlights effectively.

    But finally, here is the great plus of the internet — via being connected to minds (mostly English speaking, though I am studying and learning there too) all over the planet, I am exposed to books and texts I would have never been in a pre-internet age. This site alone has triggered purchases, link follows, library checkouts that have enriched my life and opened worlds for me. And then the bibliography and footnotes in those, in turn, have spawned more nodes.

    I understand the charge about attentiveness and silence, but I’ve found (especially on “old-school” sites or minimalist blog/CMS setups where the text is that is focused) that even in online reading, I can experience that same “literary brain” mode, with the added benefit of being able to Cmd-F my way back through the text.

    Yes, reading on screens is different than reading hardcopy print. But that difference is blurring, as technology advances — reading on a Kindle or iPad offers advantages over bound books or even computer screens.

    OTOH, the internet existence has exploded my physical library — I’m sitting here in my den typing this, and books flood my house, and set of the 8 foot high shelves are inadequate to contain the stacks of books that are everywhere throughout the house (and many are still boxed).

  • When one is interested in a particular topic (e.g., creation vs. evolution and the theological consequences thereof), the internet has been a wonderful way to get access to a large number of opinions of other people, particularly on carefully selected blogs and the comments on those blogs (e.g., Jesus Creed & BioLogos’ Science and the Sacred). It is also a good way to “try out” thoughts and ideas.

    In addition to reading novels and magazines less (something has to give), the primary way that the internet has affected my reading is that I find myself selecting books and essays to read based on recommendations in internet blogs and comments on blogs (and then checking out the book reviews on Amazon).

    I read as many books as before, but do mostly scanning on the internet. A significant portion of my reading/scanning is on the internet.

  • AHH

    My amount of book-reading has stayed about the same, but I think the quality of what I read has improved. Rather than being stuck with what my local bookstore chose to put on its shelves, I am pointed to stimulating reading by places like this blog.
    Probably about half the books I have read in the past year (for example, I just started Evolving in Monkey Town; Introverts in the Church is another good example) I would never have found my way to in the old days.

  • Robert A

    As a current PhD student I don’t have much time for reading outside of my seminars and preliminary dissertation research. That said I take time in the summer to read a novel or two. This summer I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

    I would suggest that the internet has thrust us into a golden age of reading. We have more people reading more things these days. No let us be careful to note that while it is a golden age of reading it isn’t a golden age of literature. Stats would likely prove the observation that gossip and petulant American news sites are more trafficked than say the New Yorker.

    One of the issues that is silently ravaging our American culture is the lack of creativity and the push for better artistic expression. Since the corporations have taken over the studios and publishing houses we have seen art descend from its place amongst the high cultural goods to being nothing more than a cold hearted, passionless business decision.

    Given my circumstance I don’t think there is much I can add, unless you consider Barth’s Dogmatics leisure reading. While my reading has increased significantly it isn’t always for pleasure (though I do enjoy my studies.)

    One great thing that my wife and I have discovered is that we aren’t watching television at all these days. Which isn’t a bad thing. There is just plain junk on television these days.

  • Josh Mueller

    I find that I read a lot less novels for the sake of pure enjoyment. While the internet has been an invaluable resource to broaden my horizon in terms of seeing what is out there, connecting with people I would otherwise never have connected with, and getting to know what and how others think, it also has reduced in many ways the act of thinking to that type of critical engagement and interaction, subconsciously also influencing the selection of what seems to matter, both personally and globally.

    I appreciated what you said about that felt need it creates to keep catching up. In the end, we know more data but probably reflect less deeply and less undisturbed, causing us to be informed but not necessarily centered and at peace. Which poses the question: what need is really being met in this constant buzz of ideas and soundbytes?

  • Terry

    The amount of reading material, the amount of time I spend reading, and the quality of what I read has escalated as a result of the Internet. I have never been a fiction reader, and most reading has had a pragmatic element in it for me as a pastor (that is not to say I do not read for enjoyment, I do, just more intentionally constructive enjoyment.) I read more books today than ever, and much of that is a result of Internet reading (i.e. Jesus Creed recommendations.) I own a video store so I likely watch for enjoyment more of my “reading for enjoyment” than I read.

    Internet reading is huge for me these days and I likely spend 50% of my reading time here. It has allowed for me to read on a broader range of topics, differing views which I likely wouldn’t have invested book money to read, and has provided a well-roundedness that hasn’t existed previously. The statements are true about being able to bookmark the information, and I certainly wish I had better memory of what I’ve read, but won’t likely be bookmarking less.

  • Bethann

    My reading has been enhanced by the Internet due to the availability of reviews in blogs such as Jesus Creed. I have found the reviews helpful and they have started me on journeys through different subjects that I would not be able to pursue in my local library. I still prefer to read a book but I also like to know what I am buying and in the case of theology, more about the author.

  • Nice to see a balanced view shaping up here….

    Email and Facebook are a way for me to connect with family and friends that doesn’t depend on when we might have time to talk on the phone … and is faster than snail mail and printing and sending pictures. They allow me to actually participate in their lives in almost real time. The challenge is to sort out all the junk from “friends” who are not really “friends” enough to have a real place in my life. I am seriously looking to “unfriend” a significant number of folks who have “friended” me because I am a friend of one of their friends. This is where the waste of time comes … scanning through hundreds of status updates that mean little to me in order to find the ones I care about. Still pondering when. Maybe a New Year’s Resolution? ;^)

    Blogging came into my life as I was beginning to be able to spend time reading again. Birthing and raising three boys totally blew out my free time for reading … especially since my first born arrived on the very morning that I graduated from college … so there were already a few years where all reading was required reading, so I needed a break from reading … well, I did read books about pregnancy and child care :^)

    As others have noted, the internet allows me to know of things that were just unavailable to me before. For those of us who are isolated (whether geographically or socially), the internet is freedom … and this Virtual Abbess would not exist without the virtual family of God that assembles through the Holy Spirit as facilitated by electronics….

  • Darren King

    First off I should say I don’t really do any long-form reading online, or on any kind of tablet device. When it comes to long-form reading, I’m still a book-in-the-hand kind of a guy. I even like the look and feel of a book that I can pick up and read, being able to perceive its aging appearance after 10 years or so. I bought a Thomas Merton book yesterday from Border’s, and thought to myself, I wonder what it’ll be like to re-read this book 20 years from now. And when it comes to Merton, I do re-read him.

    My online reading tends to be more participatory. I read blog entries and articles so that I can then interact. By the way, it drives me a little crazy when responders to blog posts think its okay write a response that is 3 times longer than the original post. If they do that I just skip right past them. I understand that this short-form interaction sometimes lacks a little depth, but I trust that people are forming their opinions by reading more extensively in other arenas. Like I already mentioned, that’s what I tend to do.

  • Adam Hann

    Just a quick question that comes to my mind while reading this (and skimming over the comments).

    What negative effects does reading have on us? When the printing press came around, and literature was readily available to most everyone, what was given up then? What were the communities saying about how books were changing the interaction that was going on?

    Just a question that pops in my mind. Thoughts?

  • AHH

    Adam #19:

    You ask some good questions. Some of that kind of analysis (how shifts in media affect life and culture and thought) is done in the fine book by Shane Hipps The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture.

    As I recall, Hipps claims among other things that the shift 500 years ago to a culture (and a church) more based on the printed word led to people seeing things in more black/white abstract propositional terms, sort of paving the way for Enlightenment modernism.