Why I Don’t Read Novels Anymore*

I suppose I could say that since I spent two years in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, I have become totally compelled by the reading and writing practices of those who are fairly immersed in the culture of digital and social media. Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in this world and am still very much an outsider (or “participant observer,” I suppose), I am hooked by things like ROFLcon, flowcharts, and my friend Kevin’s obsession with YouTube videos of people dancing.

Just now I got an email from Facebook, notifying me that Donna Alvermann, a literacy scholar whose work I admire, had posted something on my wall. I clicked through to my Facebook page and saw that she had thanked me for sharing a link on my Google Reader feed, which forwards to my Facebook account and posts them as news items each time I share something on my feed. In this case, what I had shared was a link to a videoblog website called EPIC FU. On that website was a linked video from a guy named Jay Smooth, a radio DJ and videoblogger who runs New York’s longest-running hiphop radio show on WBAI. EPIC FU posted Jay Smooth’s video, which is linked through his YouTube stream  and his website. The video is a three-minute piece about the kinds of conversations we have about race, with Smooth’s recommendations for the best ways to have those conversations. It’s phenomenal.

[Side note: the reason I know about EPIC FU is twofold. The first is that I found it as a subscription service through my TiVo, which downloads EPIC FU episodes to my DVR. The second is that Zadi Diaz and Steve Woolf, the couple who produce EPIC FU, are on the PBS Engage advisory board with me. I liked their videoblog before, but now that I know them and follow their Twitter feeds too, I am more apt to spend time with EPIC FU online and have pretty much ditched my TiVo version.]

In her post on my Facebook wall, Professor Alvermann wanted to let me know that she plans on using the video this spring in a course she’s teaching on literacy and popular culture. I replied to her wall post with a Facebook email. I explained to her in that email that I have created an RSS feed from my del.icio.us network of friends and contacts. The feed collects all the sites that people in my network have bookmarked and sends it to my RSS reader. Additionally, Google Reader has a feature that allows those of us who use it to “share” items we see in our feeds. Facebook has a feature (an API?) that pulls what I share on Google Reader and posts it on my Facebook wall. I allow those wall posts to show up in my news feed, which thus shows up in my Facebook friends’ feeds too, which is how Professor Alvermann came across it.

When I emailed Professor Alvermann, I confessed to her that I probably spend about 3-4 hours each day reading, watching, listening, and commenting on things I see online. Though if I’m being totally honest, there are a couple of days each week when I spend even more time than that. I concede that some of my reading consists of simply seeing rather than full on meaning-making, but on the whole I’m doing a *lot* of reading and writing, much more than I ever imagined I would. Access and immersion in a culture are powerful things, but they are most meaningful when combined with one another.

Since my training is in the study of how people read, write, and learn, this stuff is my bread and butter. As I get more immersed in the literacy practices surrounding (mostly digital) social media, I can see why people in library and information science are so far ahead of the game. Likewise, scholars in HCI and communications and media studies have been studying and participating in this for years, not to mention the people who actually make a living at it. I am happy to say that English departments are catching up. (I heard that there were more than a handful of social and digital media presentations at MLA this week. Yay!)

So in my case, I read and receive information online in three primary ways: links shared through RSS, links shared through my del.icio.us network, and links shared through my Twitter feed. In each case, links are almost always combined with some kind of contextual annotation.

  1. RSS Feed. Google Reader works well for me, and there are several “pure” feeds I read almost daily. That is, these are feeds that come straight from the sources that produce them, like a columnist from the New York Times or a videoblog like EPIC FU. However, I also subscribe to feeds that are already aggregated. For example, Australian social media scholar Tama Leaver regularly posts “annotated links” throughout the week via his personal blog. So I have a feed for that. What’s most interesting is that Google Reader has a “sharing” feature. What that means is that if I want to, I can share items in my feed with others who also use Google’s RSS reader. We both have to turn on the feature, but what that does is allow me to see what my friends are saying is interesting and vice versa. I get a window into the feeds that they read regularly, too. Sometimes I will ditch one of my own feeds and just read what they share instead. Aggregators upon aggregators.
  2. Del.icio.us. I also have the aforementioned feed for my del.icio.us network. Del.icio.us is a social bookmarking website, which means that I can link with others and read what they’re reading. If they save a link, I can see that link (if they want me to). Plus, del.icio.us encourages users to annotate and tag what they share. When people tag their items, it makes it easier for me to search, too. So whenever I want to know about a good Photoshop or Twitter tutorial, I’ll go use del.icio.us instead of a Google search. That way I can be sure to get some kind of filter that’s a step beyond what Google’s algorithm allows. For what that’s worth, anyway.
  3. Twitter. Finally, I follow the links that folks in my Twitter feed post from time to time. These can go anywhere and most of the time people are tweeting or re-tweeting the same things. But while there might be less variety, the links I get through my Twitter network are the freshest. I think it’s safe to say that I get my breaking news through Twitter. And while I also subscribe to a NYTimes text service that sends me breaking news alerts via my iPhone, usually those text alerts are slower than the Twitter community.

There are many, many more things to say about all of this. In fact, there are so many people talking about it that my head spins when I think about how much reading I still need to do. From a literacy perspective though, it’s stunning. I think about just my own primary habits described above and feel the need to explain that while I am immersed in this culture, I wouldn’t say that my practices are extreme. At the same time, I know there might be folks who read this with surprise. There are also folks who will read it and say that this is why I’m not publishing more. But they say that about my videogame play too. My general response is to say that for me, it’s all research. Learning about it helps me understand how and why my students write and learn to write. It helps me see how and why those things are changing and what we can do to understand their literacy habits and practices better.

Anyway I hope my course next semester produces a lot of good discussion and research in this area of social media and digital cultures. Fingers crossed, my students are ready for it.

*It is a running joke among those who know me that although I have a PhD in English, I can barely get through a novel anymore. I suppose part of the reason for that is that I’d rather be reading other things. And part of it is probably that once I learned all the tricks, I got bored. There’s not much out there that I haven’t seen before. But before you start arguing that my dying interest in novel-reading is due to the fact that I read online all the time and that my attention span has been shortened, let me say no! I am perfectly capable of reading endless amounts of nonfiction. I can read lengthy articles in scholarly journals (can you??), I can read lots and lots of student papers, and I can breeze through complicated investigative journalism. Attention is definitely not the problem. I just don’t find fiction that pleasurable these days. Maybe that will change, but for now, that’s that.

3 responses to “Why I Don’t Read Novels Anymore*

  1. Alice – nice overview of your reading patterns, and I’m always amazed at how many people blog readers don’t know about RSS feeds or social bookmarking. About your last comment – do you think it’s fiction per se, or the literary medium? I too have become far less novel-patient over the past few years, but it’s not because of fiction – I consume vast amounts of fiction via the TV! So do you watch fiction instead of reading it?

  2. Goodness it’s been too long since I updated! Yikes. Too much Twitter.

    Yes, you’re right on the literary medium point. I’ve thought about it a lot, actually. I suppose I enjoy narrative more than I enjoy literary media, fiction or not. I’m looking now at my top ten TiVo season passes and eight of them are “reality” shows.

    I think that in terms of reading, anyway, what I’m most interested in is learning about new perspectives and how to see the world in new ways. It’s not so much about content for me. I love trying to understand how characters (fiction or no) see the world. Not sure what that means, though. 😛

  3. Just perfect.
    If you’ll believe me, I searched for “I don’t read novels anymore” in google and it came up with this page! I searched for that, in order to see if it happened regularly to people and why.
    Although a former avid reader of novels, I cannot get through 10 pages of novels anymore. But I seem to prefer to spend the time reading up wikipedia articles on just about anything I can put mouse clicks on.
    Came up with this too, so it seems to be pretty common.

    And yes good analysis of reading patterns indeed.

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