Monthly Archives: February 2014

Read quickly, for tomorrow you die

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.

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.

Twitter as Aphorism

Most tweets are little more than banal self-promotion or mindless snark. Few are experiments in forms of social critique. But for University of Pennsylvania Professor of German Studies Eric Jarosinski, Twitter’s formal constraint of just 144 characters has freed him of the endless equivocations of academic prose. Jarosinki started his tenure-track position at UPenn in 2007 as a scholar of the Frankfurt School and critical theory, working on figures such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer. As he was struggling to write a book and compose in a language that could get him tenure, he began a Twitter feed, NeinQuarterly, that helped him recover, as he recently put it in a New Yorker interview, “the playful sides of German thinkers”:

Adopting the Twitter persona was “extremely liberating,” he said, because it helped him to remember what had attracted him to the Frankfurt School philosophers in the first place: their more literary works, especially their aphorisms. Adorno: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” Or, as one NeinQuarterly tweet has it: “ADORNO. German for YOLO.”

Composing for Twitter also forced him to think about matters of form and the shape that social critique could take, something that Frankfurt School figures like Adorno and Benjamin wrote a great deal about. A good tweet, says Jarosinski, does something particular:

“You’re trying to find a way to state contradiction. You’re writing a cartoon caption for a cartoon that doesn’t exist…. It’s the old Gary Larson trick,” he said, referring to the creator of “The Far Side.” “What you really need to do in a cartoon is set someone up for the moment that comes next, after that frame, but is not depicted.” Tweets, he has learned, work best in dialogue form, because dialogue helps readers imagine a scene. “An early tweet of mine would have said, ‘No bourgeois morality on the bus.’… The better tweet is, ‘Sorry, sir, no bourgeois morality on the bus.’”

A good day on Twitter for him is when he can discover “a new structure” that he can use over and over. “I guess I want to see myself as an aphorist,” Jarosinski said. “And not even a Twitter aphorist. I think we need to reestablish that as a profession.”

Twitter as critique, anyone?

. . . . . . . .

Like The Hedgehog Review on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our posts via RSS.