The change in the role of books in my life came home to me recently when I had a catch-up call with a friend. Every 7 minutes, he brought up a book he was excited about and was directly relevant to our topic at the moment. I know this because I jotted the titles down, and Zoom tells me how long we were on the call.
He wasn’t bragging about having read a lot of books. He was being enthusiastic and helpful. But it made me realize how far I’ve slipped from book culture. I still write books, and I am spending an increasing amount of my time helping other authors figure out the book they want to write, but I rarely read a book all the way through anymore. Far more often, I come to a book because I have something I’m already interested in, and I leave it when it’s done talking about that.
I’m not proud of this. I’m especially perturbed because I aesthetically enjoy the structure of books and enjoy helping other writers structure theirs. It bothers me that age and the internet have sapped my patience.
But I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing. For one thing, many of the books I pick up assume I’m as interested in the topic as the author is, and the structure reflects that: The author breaks the book’s subject into obvious chapters that march along in predictable order, and you read them as if ticking boxes. That’s fine if you already care enough about the topic to want to master it. If not, the author is giving you little reason to keep reading. If an author slams together chapters with a thud but no resonance, the author may be suppressing what makes them so interested in the topic in the first place.
The best of these books—at least the ones that appeal to me the most—are organized so that you are constantly surprised, and each revelation throws a new light on what you have already been shown. In an offhand set of examples of superbly structured books, I’d include Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Yes, it’s a pretty random list, and each is structured differently, but that’s the point.
Still, I am spending more time than ever reading—online, in a browser. That means that the overall structure of what I read is not imposed by the authors, although the links they provide certainly suggest branches to follow. The structure of what I read in a day is loose enough that I, like everyone else, get lost in threads on topics I did not know I was interested in. In a book, not knowing how you got to a page would be a sign of a failed structure. On the internet, that can be a sign of a deeply rewarding intellectual expedition.
Some of these little adventures are silly and embarrassing, but not all. I spent half an hour today learning about the old and new ways of adjusting colors in a film, and why that matters. I also spent about an hour browsing about theory-free science. The colors “research” began with a quirky note in a quirky newsletter; the theory-free science thread began because someone sent me a link to a really great article about it, knowing that it’s something I’m interested in. I also browsed around about how to use tung oil to finish a floor, and whether it matters if an SD [Secure Digital] memory card supports the UHS-I or UHS-II standard. Also, I read up a little bit on what the singer Clay Aiken has been up to even though I do not particularly care about Clay Aiken.