Infernal Machine   /   February 20, 2014

Read quickly, for tomorrow you die

Brianne Alcala

Slate, the digital magazine of news and commentary, recently added a new feature to its articles. Beside most titles is an estimated reading time:

Slate list of articles with estimated time to read them

Slate's decision to estimate how long it will take to read an article is certainly an acknowledgment of our digital culture in which readers more often than not skim and scan, but rarely make it through an entire article. But, as Brett Beasley notesSlate is also acknowledging, however implicitly, our finitude.

Many thinkers and artists throughout history . . .have written and worked with a momento mori, or reminder of death, nearby. While we might pride ourselves on the nearly instantaneous speed with which we can deploy and make use of information online, in the end our time and our attention are finite, and we have to make difficult decisions about what is valuable enough to spend our time on. We each have our own electronic tools—Feedly, Reddit, Evernote, HootSuite—we use not just to gather up information, but to dispense with what isn’t valuable, like machetes we use to hack away at the digital jungle.

Constrained as we are by the limits of time and our bodies, we make decisions about what and how to read. Sometimes we read with great care and commitment, while other times we read with haste and detachment. Reading takes different shapes and forms, because when we read we do so as embodied creatures engaged in a unique activity that is always situated in a particular time and place. We always read somewhere and at some time.

And in moments like ours when we feel as though we are awash in so many words, we look for ways to cope, ways to manage and structure our reading through technologies of all kinds. Whereas today we have a panoply of digital technologies to make our reading lives more manageable, late eighteenth-century German readers, anxious about book floods and plagues, had different sorts of technologies for dealing with so much print. In his 1799 book on the Art of Reading Books, Adam Bergk advised his audience to treat reading like an exercise that required careful forethought and repetition. He recommended the best body postures for reading, as well as the different methods required for a novel or philosophy.

Our digital technologies may well outstrip the practices and norms that have been cultivated over centuries for reading printed texts, but we are gradually adapting older practices and norms for our digital age. And maybe we'll even come up with some new ones.