Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 13, 2014

reading and thinking, one more time

I want to put together two recent posts because I think when you look at them in conjunction with each other they indicate a significant, and troubling, trend. I wrote recently about how to acquire thoughts worth expressing; and I also noted that the same article on codex-reading vs. e-reading gets written over and over and over again, with the authors rarely showing any awareness that others have quite thoroughly covered their chosen theme.

The link is simply this: that one of the most reliable ways to sharpen your own thinking is to find out what other smart people have thought and said about the things you’re interested in — that is, to take the time to read. But the content-hungry world of online publishing creates strong disincentives for writers to take that time. Almost every entity that has an online presence wants to publish as frequently as possible — as long as the quality of the writing is adequate. And often “adequacy” is determined by purely stylistic criteria: a basic level of clarity and, when possible, some vividness of style. That the writer may be saying something indistinguishable from what a dozen or a hundred writers have said before is rarely a matter of editorial concern. Get the content out there!

And of course, writers want to be published and be read. If they can’t have their work in print magazines or books, then having it tied to a URL is the next best thing — sometimes even a better thing. The passion for self-expression is incredibly powerful. Consider, for instance, the unvarying lament of literary journals: that they have far more people submitting stories and poems to them than they have readers. (Would-be and actual creative writers rarely read, and often know nothing about, the journals to whom they submit their work and whose approval-via-acceptance they so desperately crave.)

So between the writers who desperate to be published and the editors desperate for “content,” the forces militating against taking time — time to read, time to think — are really powerful. So writers tend to trust the first thoughts that come to them, rarely bothering to find out whether others have already considered their topic and written well about it — and in fact not wanting to know about earlier writing, because that might pre-empt their own writing, their publication — the “content” that editors want and that will keep readers’ Twitter feeds clicking and popping with links. In the current system everyone feels stimulated or productive or both. And hey, it’s only reading and thinking that go by the wayside.