My Ever Changing Relationship with Reading

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[Image: pair of leopard print glasses sitting on top of an open dictionary. Yellow tones]. Source: morguefile.com.
I mentioned the other week that I was writing an essay on my changing reading practices. It’s been graded now, which means I can share it with all of you!

I was homeschooled during my elementary and middle-school years. I did not own a cellphone. I did own a computer, but my internet connection based on dial-up was very slow. I had a lot of free time on my hands outside of my coursework, which I spent most of on reading. I had another friend who was homeschooled and we used to keep lists of how many books we had read in the year with the goal of making the number as high as possible, forming a small reading community together. We were also a little competitive. I always wanted to be at least a couple books ahead of her, as well as compete with myself in previous years. My fourteenth year, as we kept track based on age, was when I read over sixty books. I spent many hours each day reading, in my bedroom, the library, or my grandparent’s boathouse on the river, my favourite location. My favourite genres were horror, science fiction, and fantasy, mostly of the young adult variety. I think I was drawn to these genres because of the escapism they offered, similar to how some are drawn to Harlequin romance (Woodruff).

I was determined to read everything Stephen King had ever written. I had originally picked up one of his paperbacks in a Floridian condo, Bag of Bones, while on vacation with my family and was hooked from there on out. At that age, horror movies were forbidden to me by my mother, but she did not seem too concerned about the books. King’s works allowed me to escape into strange and frightening worlds, worlds written for adults, that made my skin crawl and kept me riveted. They provided a welcome distraction from my own life, which could, at times, be lonely and boring as a homeschooled kid.

When I went to high-school my relationship with books shifted. I made friends, was out of the house five days a week, and came back with plenty of homework to keep me occupied. I read less, though I didn’t quit reading entirely. I was always surprised when teachers gave us a month or two to get through one book. That was more than enough time for me, given my previous habits. During this period, I had less time for reading and less of a need for escape because I was engaging with my own life more. I had a crush on one of my classmates and he asked me out on a date. I had more friends than I knew what to do with. I was being challenged by the rigorous academic program I had applied for. My own life became just as, if not more, interesting to me than the young adult novels and the King classics that I had loved. I did not need them as much as I once did.

I did not own a cellphone until the summer after I graduated from high-school. When I did get one, it was a smartphone. This changed my reading practices because I began texting regularly and reading online articles on my phone, accessing new media. Though I still read print-based books, the advent of the smartphone in my life meant that I was often distracted from reading. For example, I might receive a text message or other notification on my phone while trying to read, interrupting the activity. I was also drawn in by the appeal of this new device in my life, often spending time using its apps or reading articles on its web browser rather than physical books. This new technological shift in the microcosm of my life became a distraction from the formerly solitary, uninterrupted practice of reading.

In the year after I graduated from high-school, I went backpacking through Europe. This was why I had purchased the smartphone, in order to stay connected with my family back home. I brought two travel guides and one of my favourite novels with me. The novel was very short and something I could read in one sitting, which I did a few times during the quiet moments while traveling. I also picked up another book for free at a lending library in one of the hostels I stayed in. Though I did not read very much, reading was a great way to wind down during the trip, which could at times be overstimulating and stressful. Most of my reading during this time, however, was functional. I read sections of the travel guides, maps, signs, and articles on my phone recommending certain destinations or activities. Reading became something I relied on to help me get around, find accommodation, and plan activities. I also encountered language barriers in many of the countries I spent time in, finding it very difficult to travel in places where I could not understand the signs, maps, or other texts.

My reading practices changed again when I began attending university. Within that first year, I was assigned more readings than I could handle. I had to learn how to skim. I had to learn which out of my assigned readings were important and which were not. I began reading summaries of texts online if I could not get through them before lectures. This was all very challenging for me, as I wanted to be able to read everything and get as much out of the assigned texts as possible. I simply did not have the time or energy for this, however, as there was so much that it was impossible to get through it all. Reading in university consumed most of my time but, unlike when I was younger, it was not for pleasure. I did my reading for my classes. I made schedules. I took notes. I examined texts through the specific frameworks taught in my classes, looking for specific motifs or themes which my professors had drawn my attention to. I developed eye-strain from focusing on small text for so long. I also developed a new relationship with reading, one which felt like more of a chore than a fun pastime.

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[Image: Pages of a yellowed-book caught in the motion of falling, shot from the side. Green background]. Source: morguefile.com.

I did still try to read for pleasure outside of my classes, though I was not often able to get very far. Reading for fun felt like a waste of time and energy when I could be doing assigned readings instead. I found it difficult to motivate myself to do it. I began, instead, to seek a more instant gratification in my leisure time. I began watching television and movies far more than I had before. It required less mental energy or engagement to watch an hour of television than it did to read a novel for the same amount of time. This kind of screen time slowly began to replace the time I had previously devoted to reading for pleasure, an activity I was indulging in less and less over the years.

Technology had also been changing. In university, I had a powerful enough computer and a fast enough Internet connection to have access to a wide variety of shows and movies online. My mother started a subscription to Netflix, an online video streaming service, which she shared with me. Netflix is designed to encourage the activity of “binge watching,” where one spends many consecutive hours watching TV shows or movies. When the viewer finishes an episode of a show, for example, the next episode begins counting down automatically and, if the viewer does not close Netflix, will play within fifteen seconds. The advent of Netflix, its wide selection and prompt to keep watching longer than I may have otherwise, certainly had an effect on my reading practices. As a student, I never would have paid for cable, but I certainly paid for an Internet connection, which was both necessary for school and entertainment. Netflix made it easier than ever to choose watching over reading, given its accessibility. Given how tired I was of reading for school, I leapt at this new opportunity. Online video streaming in addition to a smartphone certainly interrupted and diminished the practice of reading for pleasure. It felt like supersession was taking place during this time, with newer technology, such as smartphones and Netflix, replacing older technology, like print-based books, for entertainment purposes (Finkelstein and McCleery 121).

Six months ago, I created a YouTube channel and began devoting a significant amount of time to making one or more videos every week, watching videos, and connecting with other YouTubers online. I now spend less time on Netflix and more time on YouTube, whether it be as a creator or as a viewer. This has also affected my reading practices. In addition to doing readings for school, I read articles online as research for some of my videos. I am also far more active on social media than I have ever been, as I run several social media accounts which are connected to my YouTube channel. I read Tweets, posts on Tumblr, Facebook pages, blogs connected to some of the channels I follow, captions for Instagram photos, and anything else relevant to the content that I create. I even created an account on GoodReads, a website where readers can share what they are reading, book recommendations, and book reviews. On this website, I set a goal to read twenty books this year and every time I finish a book, I plug it into GoodReads and the number goes up. This website, an extension of my other social media accounts, does help to motivate me to keep reading in order to reach my goal.

There are also some YouTubers, called BookTubers, who read and review books in their videos, forming an online reading community. I have gotten several good recommendations from these kinds of channels. One person I follow recommended several audiobooks, which I have found to be a great way to read on the go. I can listen to these books on my smartphone while walking to work or cleaning the house. My phone does not just interfere with my reading practices these days, it can also facilitate them, depending on how I choose to use it.

It was through certain BookTubers that I have rediscovered young adult fantasy and science fiction. After growing older and falling out of the young adult range, I felt like I had to read works written for more mature audiences. In university especially, I was taught to value the classics or great works of literature from the canon. This was a form of gatekeeping, where in an act of elitism the academic institution taught me to value certain literary texts over others (Finkelstein and McCleery 99). I began thinking that reading always had to be a serious activity which developed and expanded the mind, meaning that I always had to read works that challenged me. It was through listening to certain BookTubers discuss their own reading practices that I realized this was not true. Many of them were adults who confessed their love for young adult fiction. They talked about the stigma around adults reading such “lowly” genres as science fiction and fantasy written for adolescents. They talked about why they loved it anyway, how it had freed them as readers and allowed them to escape into whole other worlds. They talked about the valuable lessons to be had in such works, which were often coming of age stories with many life lessons to share. It was through listening to such people that I was able to reconnect with my adolescent self who had adored these kinds of texts. Most recently, I have been reading a four-book fantasy series where the two main protagonists are sixteen. I am not ashamed of it, and am genuinely enjoying the experience of reading once again. Pursuing young adult fiction has helped me re-learn how to read for pleasure again instead of just for school, and it was online video, interestingly enough, that helped to get me here.

Though it is nearly impossible to accurately predict future societal and technological shifts, I do like to speculate on the future of my reading practices. Within a few months, I will graduate from university and will no longer be assigned readings in school. Though I do not know what kind of job I will have and how that will affect my reading practices, I expect I will be more interested in reading for pleasure once I do not have academic readings. I hope to continue to find new ways to incorporate reading into my life which accommodate the changing technology around me as well as my own needs. I would like to keep pursuing audiobooks, as I have found them to be an excellent way to read while on the go. I own a tablet which I barely use at this point in time, which I would like to begin reading e-books on at night, as it is well-designed for a person to lay in bed and read from with ease. I hope to find ways to mute distractions while reading so that I may focus on engaging with the text at hand. Essentially, I would like to read more. In order to do so, I need to acknowledge what is standing in the way of that pursuit and find ways to work around it. I find that newer technology, such as of Netflix and smartphones, are hindering my reading practices, so far as the reading of traditional books is concerned, and I would like to utilize technology to help them instead. Perhaps I need to make the books I own more accessible and engaging than they currently are in their print form. Perhaps this means downloading audio and e-books to keep up with the new ways in which my brain is processing information through the use of technology. I do not want to buy into technological determinism, thinking that changing technology must drive my and other’s reading practices, changing the nature of reading communities and societal approaches to reading, leading us into thinking “that the book is an obsolete medium” (Finkelstein and McCleery 120). We control technology, it does not control us, and we can find ways to use it which enhance our current reading practices. Regardless of smartphones and Netflix, books still have a lot to offer.

In conclusion, technological shifts and changes in lifestyle have affected my reading practices over the years. Phones and computers, with their access to the Internet, have come to replace books in many ways, demonstrating a kind of supersession. Heavy reading assignments have changed how I have approached reading and reduced the time I spend reading for pleasure. Though it has previously gotten in the way of my reading, I have recently been learning how to use changing technology to advance my reading practices through the use of audio and e-books. I have revisited the kinds of texts I enjoyed as a teenager in order to bring the fun back into reading, letting go of the notion that reading must be a serious, academic pursuit. Overall, just as the macrocosm of society has experienced technological shifts and changes to reading practices, I have experienced these things individually on the micro-level. I will always be a reader, and my hope for the future is that I will find ways to utilize changing technology to read more rather than less, a hope I have for others as well.

Works Cited

Finkelstein, David, and Alistair McCleery. An Introduction to Book History. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print

Woodruff, Juliette. “A Spate of Words, Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Or, How to Read in Harlequin.” Journal of Popular Culture 19.2 (Fall 1985): 25-32. Web.

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