Becoming a slightly less Blind Giant?

In my current, “I’m-all-about-the-non-fiction” phase (I get one, every so often) I just finished reading Nick Harkaway’s new book The Blind Giant. The simple verdict, it’s good, go read it.

Longer version – yes, I was pre-disposed to like it, I like digital stuff and tech, I like thinking about the impact that they’re going to have, I like Nick Harkaway and his writing (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bought the hardback). I also like the cover. It pretty.

I also really quite like the approach to the subject, which is very much, ‘I can’t be definitive, and a lot of this is going to be out-of-date in about five minutes anyway, but let’s talk about some interesting questions and start engaging our brains with them.’ I’m not an expert, or even mildly proficient, in this area, so I have no idea what ‘new’ stuff this brings to the table – but it synthesises a lot of ideas and arguments well, isn’t afraid to mention stuff that it’s going to question (and not in a beat-up and burn down the straw man type way), and is very accessible and engaging.

Two further notes. Firstly, I particularly dug in with chapters six to eight (Tahrir and London; The Old, the Modern and the New; Engagement) and the idea that we get to choose what we do with our tech and our digital lives and worlds in exactly the same way that we do in our current analogue lives and worlds – that they are an extension of our ‘now’ and a tool that we can use either positively or negatively. And if we don’t choose positively, or just opt out of choosing, then the end results are our own goram faults, in exactly the same way that I think you can’t get cross with a government (if you live in a western democracy) if you didn’t bother to get out there and vote one way or the other.

The ‘theme’ of my 2012 so far has been a lot of different people in a lot of different fora telling me that change is constant and always fast pace, that there will not be a time where everything in my life will be at a state where it has ‘calmed down’, and that I should just get comfortable living with it. Apparently being a grown-up is all about making engaged decisions all of the time. Sigh.

I was also interested in this whole ‘deep reading’ issue, and the idea that spending time online, or reading digitally, changes the way that we read, because I’ve been working through this a bit since buying a kindle. I love my kindle, I love having a couple of hundred books in a slim grey tablet, I love how portable it is. But here’s the thing – I find it infinitely harder to decide what to read, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m not viewing covers on shelves, or something else; I have a harder time sticking to that one thing; and I feel a compulsion to skim and race to the end far more than I do when reading a paper book. This last I blame on the fact that when I learnt to read on-screen I was primarily reading newspaper articles, and then academic journal articles, skimming and scanning for research and ideas, racing through to get onto the next thing I had to read for the PhD. Deep reading was not what I was looking to do. And now, sitting with a novel on a kindle, I find deep reading harder to achieve than I do when I curl up with a paperback and turn the pages.

I don’t think that this is insurmountable, though – I think it’s learnable, and that when I get to a book on the kindle that I’m really engaged in, I’ll get to the deep reading (I may still miss the ease of flicking to particular spots in favourite books, or the sense of ‘how many pages’ through a book I am that the kindle’s percentages do not convey, but that’s a different thing). But I also think, and this is something I wish Harkaway went into a bit in The Blind Giant, that a part of the divide between ‘deep reading’ and not-deep reading is not about digital vs. plain text, but about fiction vs. non-fiction.

So, I think a part of my problem getting deeply engaged in digital reading is because my first digital reading experiences were non-fiction. And I think that the way the brain engages with non-fiction reading (either digitally or on paper) is a lot like the way the brain engages with digitial reading (as Harkaway describes it), especially if you’re a researcher – we’re scanning, we’re pulling out ideas to put together with other ideas, we’re looking for connections, deciding whether to follow a footnote or carry on with the main text (because reading non-fiction can a bit like doing ‘life’ on paper, joining up dots, and choosing strands to follow – and, as a random aside – it’s also why reading something like Infinite Jest with all it’s footnotes is both a dislocating fictional experience and an amazing way of feeling like you really have fallen into the world DFW creates and are navigating your way through it). When I read non-fiction, on paper or digitally, I will have some form of pen/paper/note-taking software to hand, to make a note of key ideas or thoughts that the text is provoking. When I read fiction, I don’t do that. I might go away and hunt for an pen/marker if I find a passage I really love, but by and large when I read fiction, my brain knows it’s not coming out of there for a while. My copy of The Blind Giant has notes scribbled across it. My copies of Angelmaker and The Gone-Away World don’t. The fact that I read Angelmaker on a kindle and The Blind Giant in hardback aren’t the defining factors in that.

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