One of the great, unsung hassles of the nomadic life turns out to be not the actual migrations and moving, but magazine subscriptions. I need reading material almost as much as I need water. Without a good story—whether fiction or non-fiction—I begin to feel desiccated and parched. It’s just how I roll.
So driving from the Deep South to California two months ago, narrowly missing a twister in Louisiana and deeply missing the West by the time the sad oil rigs of Midland, Texas, were in the rearview mirror, I began to wish that I’d made my magazine subscription change of address a lot sooner, particularly the New Yorker. Despite the magazine’s impeccably intelligent staff of writers and editors, their subscription department (operated by Condé Nast) gets confused with all my moving. A change of address takes weeks, occasionally months, leaving me frustrated and ornery.
Like most magazines these days, there’s an online edition that does little to replace the print version. Though it’s possible to read every week’s printed story, scrolling rather than turning pages makes it feel as if I am merely being teased for the content that will eventually land in my mailbox. Nevertheless, during these New Yorker-less, Sahara-like spells, I’ve had little choice but to read the magazine online. And that’s when I got scared. Very scared.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of talk these days about the end of print as we know it. Newspapers and magazines are tanking all over the place. According to a recent Pew Research report, only 33 percent of Americans say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it was no longer available. The book industry has seen the writing on the wall and the writing and the wall is not made of ink but pixels. Ride a bus or a subway or step into a coffee house and you’ll witness the sea change of eyes glued to screens instead of the printed page.
Not to say I’m a grizzled, bearded Luddite, fondly recalling the days of yore and typewriters. I embraced the web like a long-lost friend I never knew. Fact is, I just Googled that above statistic on how many people read newspapers and whether I spelled Luddite correctly (I didn’t), saving me from going to the library or making a phone call. Yet in turn I spent an hour learning about the Luddite movement and neo-Luddites, the latter a term I should have probably used instead. Go ahead, Google it. Fascinating, exciting stuff especially when you’re under deadline.
But when I read anything, especially long-form journalism online, I slip into a state of high distraction. My already feeble brain, with its attention span of a dog in heat, seems to think it can multi-task. But it cannot. I find myself checking email between succulent paragraphs of a story, checking the status of my vapidly tedious “friends” on Facebook, checking the weather to see if a cloud will hide the sun. Any excuse will do. By the time I’ve finished a story, that is, if I finish a story, I’m fatigued instead of revitalized from a good read. All this without having yet entered the discussion about the feasibility of a laptop in your lap while sitting on the toilet. Should we be reassured by so much technological progress to accept that perhaps someday in the not-so-distant future Steve Jobs will unveil the “Throne Reader?”
The odd thing is after a few weeks of this exclusively online reading habit, when I go back to the printed form it takes about a week to adjust. It seems I have a hard time concentrating and remembering where I am in the printed story. Reading ceases to flow as easily and I might as well be stoned out of my gourd.
But aren’t paradigm shifts always supposed to be pain in the ass? I can almost hear the whispers of the nearly 600-year-old protest after Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press. Though his invention made literacy possible and spread information and ideas throughout Europe, it also made memorization obsolete. Pre-Gutenberg, people sang long poems around the collective campfire, memorized their stories and mythologies and passed their communal cultural onto the next generation. It worked pretty well, though the stories were kind of difficult to verify for accuracy.
Now, as technology smothers and reallocates ink and paper into the ephemeral realm of digital data, maybe we should pause to consider what this is doing to us. We lost our ability to memorize and that turned out relatively OK. (Imagine pulling up a bar stool and the guy next to you prevails upon you if he may recite an epic poem. How that time would fly.) But is losing our attention span and being overloaded with information such a bad thing? Maybe not. But it will change us.
All this reminds me of the 2006 sci-fi cult film, Idiocracy. Set in the future, America has become a nation of stupid people who water their crops with Gatorade and find the ultimate entertainment in monster truck gladiator events. Nobody reads anything but advertisements. The protagonist, who is mistakenly sent into the future from the past, addresses Congress with this memorable speech: “There was a time when reading wasn’t just for fags. And neither was writing. People wrote books and movies. Films with stories that made you care about whose ass it was and why it was farting. And I believe that time can come again.”
Print complements the web and the web relies on print for a large part of its content. At least that’s how the uneasy relationship between the two functions for the time being. This will undoubtedly change. I just hope we can come to marvel at the simplicity that a few staples and some glossy paper represent before we become nostalgic for how things used to work and before magazines, newspapers and books become precious relics of the past. With that I have an inkling this week’s New Yorker may have finally arrived in the mailbox. Time to see if I can still read it.