Notes On Reading In the 21st Century

It’s tired old news but my watery eyes have not fared well following an unfortunate stroke and too many years of use and misuse. A few years back when I moved from my own little house to fresh digs in my daughter’s house, I painfully donated box after box of new Penguin Classics and Oxford Classics to the local library, not because I didn’t want to read them all, not because I didn’t want to move them to the new house, not because bookshelf space might be tight in my new library, but simply because the print was too small to read without a magnifying glass .. and holding a magnifying glass, a book, a coffee cup, and wiping my tearing eyes at the same time was a circus act I was too old to maintain.

So I dumped my magnificent collection of world literature and entered the market for digital editions I could read in much expanded fonts on my trusty iPad.

Jumping forward a few years and after a full year of CoVid lockdown to protect my aging and compromised old body, I stopped to ponder my reading life. Oh, I still sleep, eat, eliminate, and watch the occasional series or movie on HBO Max or Netflix or Amazon Prime or Criterion, but reading has become the biggest part of my life.

Today I still maintain a big-screen iMac but I use it mostly for acquiring and reporting on books: this Weblog, for instance. I also process email, get the news, and enjoy an occasional entertainment in the form of music or arcade or video. I also enjoy the ease at which an interesting reference in a novel can end up in a deep dive into Wikipedia or Apple/Google Maps. I still make good use of my iPad, although much newer and faster version than I started with, and I supplement that with an iPhone (11 Pro Max) that normally would be my portable library allowing me to take a year’s worth of reading with me wherever I go. Unfortunately, I go nowhere and, sadly, very seldom make or receive phone calls.

But I’ve embraced the world of text messages and it’s the number one method of communicating with the rest of the household that doesn’t require a double-layer mask and hand sanitizer.

The one reading tool I have newly embraced is Apple’s AirPods. I actually prefer my older set of non-pro AirPods: they might not be noise-cancelling but I’m not keen on screwing anything into my ears, especially since they are definitely not a matched pair. Two things are great about the AirPods. First, I can read or watch Netflix without worrying about the volume; this is important because my daughter is teaching her remote classes in the next room. Second, and so useful I cannot recommend the AirPods more, I can get up from my desk, take the dog outside, heat-up a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom, or rearrange my drawer of ancient, unused artifacts called socks, and the audio feed follows me around (actually, a surprising range).

So my typical morning is, after brewing a double-espresso, flipping on the iMac to read my mail; checking the overnight news in News; telling Alexa to play Stephanie Miller; putting my iPhone on the charger (it plays old time radio through the night .. and yes, I have a nightlight); giving my iPad the finger of recognition; and after I have completed my daily digital chores (like updating this weblog), return to reading or listening to the current book on the iPad or occasionally on the iPhone.

Listening? No wonder I praise the AirPods. Yes, most reader Apps (I use Marvin 3) support some form of spoken content, usually by accessing the Mac’s built-in voice features. If you haven’t experienced this yet, give it a try. It’s not perfect but it’s light-years ahead of the “Hello. I Am a Computer” voicing of the past. Apple provides a nice selection of voices from around the world from authoritarian to nice to sexy. The real value of this spoken word approach is that you still have the synchronized reading on the screen and then audio is just an enhancement which regulates the reading speed (you can adjust the speed to force your eyes to process faster) and it reinforces the content which comes through your eyes and your ears, Also, as previously noted, it allows the reading to continue even when you’re microwaving a burrito or defrosting your mini-fridge.

I don’t want to dive back into the digital vs. ink & paper book controversy, but there is some health concerns involved in reading on an electronic device versus a safe, familiar, book. Maybe, but I’m sure anyone can think back to some historical warning of a similar danger .. Television and Nuclear Fission come to mind. I suspect that a virulent mold spore hiding in the pages of a real book might be more dangerous than Comic Sans. So if your mother warned you that Mad Magazine would rot your brain, maybe you should reconsider digital books; but for now, most visions of the future suggest visual electronics will replace books.

Books will become quaint collectors items reduced to ancient copies of the classics .. like Jacqueline Susann.

What are your thoughts on this?

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