I recently took a long break: essentially a whole month where I wrote next-to-nothing. In my defence, I was travelling the whole time so opportunities to tinker with text were few and far between copious eating, drinking, jet lag and general fun. I had all good intentions. I lugged my notebook computer everywhere with me, but it was used more for leeching wifi and farting around on the internet than on any grand wordage.
None of this I found particularly shocking. As much as I love writing, it’s still work and I don’t take holidays in order to work.
What really surprised me wasn’t the change in my writing habits; it was the radical change in my reading habits. This was the first time I have travelled without at least one paperback in my luggage. I didn’t bother with a dedicated ereader either. For that whole month, it was just me and the phone. This was a conscious decision to travel as light as possible and it had an intriguing side effect. I didn’t read any long-form texts the whole time I was away. No novels. No fiction at all, actually. And no non-fiction narrative. Just a seemingly endless stream of short, topical articles.
While I had loaded a couple of novels and long-form texts on my device, when the time came to actually read, I bypassed the iBooks, Kobo, and Kindle apps and I headed straight for Flipboard—an app that displays web site feeds in a magazine-style layout.
One of the most interesting outcomes from this inadvertent experiment is that I can’t really tell you much about what I was reading in all that time. Short form is convenient and certainly has its place, but, for me at least, it doesn’t get inside my head. It doesn’t stay with me. Like junk food and reality television, it was almost all filler.
Now, some of the this could be down to habit. The longest pieces I’ve ever read on my phone would struggle to reach 10,000 words. For longer texts at home, I turn to paper or to larger screens. In my mind, a four-inch screen can’t seem to accommodate a grand narrative.
But things may change. One book I’ve been meaning to read for some time is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I even spotted it in a bookshop on my travels with the intention of buying it. Then I picked the thing up. Clocking at more than a thousand pages in full trade paperback size, calling this book a doorstop seems a bit understated. There was no way I was going to travel with this besser brick (cinder block for you North American folks). So I walked away and kept reading topical pieces on politics, technology, music and publishing, or whatever it was I was uncritically ingesting.
When I recently caught up with if:book founder Bob Stein, he said something that has resonated ever since: ‘The decision to go to print will become a purely aesthetic decision.’
At first I took this to mean an aesthetic decision on the part of the publisher or author, a serving suggestion if you like. But of course the choice of format should rightly be with the reader. We all read differently and our preferences will change depending not only our circumstances, but also on the kind of book we want to read.
So I’ve returned to David Foster Wallace and I’ve loaded Infinte Jest on the very same four-inch screen from my travels. Whether I’ll get through it all without breaking out the tablet or the paperback, only time will tell.