The subway is a laboratory where reading habits may be observed daily. As it dips under and rises above ground, it travels between the textual and the streaming worlds. When the F train surfaces above Gowanus Canal, cell phones ring, and people check their messages. For two stations, it becomes slightly harder to focus on your book, to shut out the world by mere will power. (Earplugs, here and everywhere, are the contemporary intellectual’s vade mecum. Don’t leave the house without your bits of foam.) Then the train dives again, and it’s more quiet.
About a year ago, I noticed a woman on the subway moving her lips while reading a Harry Potter book. I admired her bravery—her New York insistence on having her pleasure no matter how it might look. But it brought home to me that fewer and fewer people read without effort. Once I started to look for them, people who read while moving their lips turned out not to be that rare. Usually the motions of the mouth muscles aren’t full; you most often see just a faint rhythmic tremor in the lips. Sometimes looks deceive, and what you’re actually watching is a person reading silently while lip-synching a song that’s playing on his iPod.
Here’s the rub: Lately I’ve noticed that I do it, too. If I hit a dry sentence or a dense one, and a conversation near me is seeping through my earplugs, I mouth the words on the page. It helps me focus. Maybe it’s a sign of incipient mental decay. Maybe I’ve lip-synched to my iPod so often lately that lip-synching to my book feels natural. Or maybe it’s not possible to fix your attention on text while something viva voce is distracting you, unless you do something to bring the text into the fleshly world.
Here’s another instance where I’ve caught myself not just moving my lips but even reading snippets aloud: In the last year or so, even websites as highbrow as the New York Times have started running ads that move. It’s very hard to read the deliberately neutral prose of the Times while a brightly colored image is flashing and whirling in a box embedded in the same column. I go through phases of deactivating Java and Flash, but I always relent and return the keys to them, because of some interactive map or chart I’d like to see. When the web was young, it was possible to surf it in text-only browsers like Lynx. No longer. A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded a clip of Jon Stewart berating Tucker Carlson, which I had missed because we don’t have television. I enjoyed the confrontation, but it occurred to me that I had taken another step away from text, that I was learning a new habit, acceding to the internet’s probably inevitable progression from a textual to a streaming medium. The web now resembles a collection of magazines, but it seems likely to me that in a decade it will resemble a collection of television channels.
If you sit at one of the tables with internet access in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, you discover that something about having internet access seems to license people to answer their cell phones. People at the internet-deprived tables are much less likely to answer a call.
A few years ago, Microsoft commissioned a study of reading, in order to figure out why people are reluctant to take on more than a thousand words or so at a time on the web. It’s one of those reports that goes to some length to state something that used to be obvious. Apparently there’s something called “immersive reading,” where people are capable of sitting still for two or three hours, absorbed, forgetting the merely physical processes of eye movements and page turnings that convey the contents into their brains. (“We never do anything well,” says Hazlitt, “till we cease to think about the manner of doing it.”) Almost everyone I know takes this experience for granted, but the statistics I wrote about yesterday suggest that we shouldn’t. Fewer people, it seems, have the appetite or aptitude for immersive reading. It seems to be losing ground to interactive and streaming media.