The Way We Read Now

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Norman Rockwell illustration for electric light ad, 1920s (Wikimedia)

As a business matter, the Atlantic has placed tremendous emphasis through the past two decades on integrating all the different ways we try to get our message out. This means via the classic in-print magazine, the ever-expanding and -refining range of our web sites, live events, videos and podcasts, and so on. I say “through the past two decades” because we were one of the very first publications to have a serious online site, starting with Atlantic Unbound back in 1994.

As an intellectual and cultural matter, the whole undertaking is more connected than you might think, with most people working in the same physical space in Washington and talking about the interactions among the various things we do. Here is a reader note about the way it comes across on the other end. I offer it as a little document on the state of modern cultural / intellectual/ technological life.

A reader in Texas writes:

My hardcopy version of The Atlantic arrived today. It made me think about how my interaction with the world is influenced by the magazine and all of your various websites.

  • I use Feedly to collect all of the various Atlantic feeds and (yes!) blogs. I check these daily, indeed several times a day.
  • When the magazine is about to be released, I notice that all at once there are many long form article on my feed. I secretly rejoice, as I know that the hardcopy is on its way. I don’t read them on my computer or my phone, but do mark some that I know I will want to send to friends later.
  • Then, a day or so after that, I am able to access the issue on my Kindle. Yes, I pay for the Kindle subscription even though I can get all that content for free online, and I will be getting it a day or so later in the mail.
  • I use the Kindle version (Years ago, when you had reviewed the Kindle favorably, I sent you a note asking about the “reading experience.” You replied that just because you have a Kindle that doesn’t mean you need to give up books) to read most of the short articles. I will be waiting for a meeting, or just killing a little bit of time and say, “I can read a short article” and I will look for stories with a short word count. (I love the word count for this reason). I don’t like it for the articles with images (especially infographics) or the long form.
  • Then I wait and wait until I get the magazine. This is where I read the long form articles, review the pieces I have already read, and leave it around the house so when people come by they will think I am smarter than I really am.

I especially love the last sentence.


Two placeholder notes for later discussion, picking up on points I’ve mentioned before:

First, even though I find it much more convenient to read almost anything in a Kindle / nook / iPad version, I have begun consciously willing myself to spend more of my reading time (when possible) on the physical, paper versions of books, magazines, and newspapers.

The advantages of reading-on-paper vary among these media: the subconscious but surprisingly important flash-memory visual impression of where things are on a page with a book (and where the page is within the book), which does affect my recall of them; the attractive page layout of a nice magazine; the ability to scan things quickly and see their relative importance on a physical newspaper page. But beyond those differences is the common factor: my reluctant admission that reading from a physical page undeniably makes me retain and remember them better. I am sorry that this is so, because it’s less convenient. (And I still spend a ton of time reading electronic versions.) And maybe the difference is mainly the distraction factor: you can’t click a link on a page, which sounds like a minus but is a plus. One way or another, for me the difference in retention is real.

Second, let’s get back to that stellar last sentence. I’m wondering about the unintended long-term effects of electronic media reducing the amount of printed material that is just part of the visual landscape in homes and offices.

As early as I can remember, and long before I could actually read, I was conscious of my childhood homes being full of printed material, on practically every surface. Charts, maps, book covers, book cases, posters, stacks of kids’ books, stacks of adults’ books, magazine collections, things with words that were clues to interests my parents had had in the past or were reading / doing / planning on now. Or things they wanted their children to be aware of and comfortable with. The shift to e-reading leaves many fewer of these cues just lying around in constant passive view. There’s also a social effect. My wife Deb could always tell what book or magazine article I was reading, just by seeing it in my hands. Now she has no idea what is on the iPad, and I don’t know what she’s in the middle of reading.

We’ll see where this all leads. For now, thanks to the reader for describing his practices.