TL;DR: We have access to more things to read than ever before. Too much, in fact. Our reading habits have shifted. We skim a lot. We look for full stories baked into headlines. Our eyes bounce around from one article to the next, and we try and fail to manage how many things we read at once. Some of us can no longer concentrate on a book—no matter how good it might be. Reading has changed. And we’re changing alongside it. With host Manoush Zomorodi, Derek Thompson at the Atlantic talks headlines; Ernie Smith from Tedium rails against our bad browser tab habits; librarian rock star Nancy Pearl makes the case for analog books; Beth Rogowsky discusses if audiobooks can replace reading; and Nate Weiner from Mozilla’s Pocket shows us one way we can manage our reading overload. Happy New Year — let’s get working on that “I will read more this year” resolution. Show Notes
With so many possible articles to read every day online, it can be hard to sort through what to read and what to skip. Help yourself — give Pocket a try, the app and web service featured in today’s episode. Pocket brings you human curated articles that are selected to inspire, inform, and motivate you. Learn more.
We mention a bunch of books in this IRL episode — here they are:
- Solitude by Michael Harris
- The End of Absence by Michael Harris
- Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi
- Hit Makers by Derek Thompson
- Book Lust books by Nancy Pearl
Want more? Mozilla has teamed up with 826 Valencia to bring you perspectives written by students on IRL topics this season. Cymreiy P. from De Marillac Academy wrote this piece on clickbait and homework.
Michael Harris: Yeah, I realized a little while ago that I cannot read anything like the way I could when I was a child.
Manoush Zomorodi: What happened to you?
Michael Harris: I mean, the internet happened to me. Right?
Manoush Zomorodi: This is me chatting with Michael Harris. Michael is a writer. He writes books like “Solitude” and “The End of Absence.” Oh, and also fun fact: Michael writes this podcast, IRL. I mean, he didn’t write the conversation I was having with him, but much of the other stuff you’ll hear, he has.
I should also say that I wrote a book. It’s called “Bored and Brilliant.”
Anyway, Michael and I were talking about how our experience of reading has changed since we’ve spent more of our lives online. That’s when Michael said he’s forgotten how to read.
Michael Harris: I spend a whole bunch of time scrolling through Twitter and Instagram and then I pick up a book and it’s not jiggling around or shining at me. I can’t do it anymore. I thought I was safe from that because I had read “War and Peace” at some point, but it turns out that just a few years of deep diving into the internet made me into a headline-only kind of reader.
Manoush Zomorodi: What do you mean? What’s a headline-only kind of reader?
Michael Harris: It’s like the guy who reads the headline and then tweets that, but didn’t actually read the story.
Manoush Zomorodi: Right. Well, there are a lot of those people out there. I have experienced, actually, this as well, and my sense was you crawl into bed and you got the book that you’re going to read. And yet, my eyes would dance around the page like I was reading a Twitter feed instead of something that really required sustained attention.
Michael Harris: Well, exactly. And the more that I thought about it, the more I realized this romantic idea I had about the kind of reader I was, the more I realized I’m not that reader anymore. I think there’s a taboo around admitting it because if you’ve forgotten how to read, you have some kind of brain damage.
Manoush Zomorodi: Whether you grew up reading mostly on screens or not, reading is changing along with the internet. The great thing about being online is that you can find information on almost everything about nearly anything, which is amazing! But some of us feel like the age of screens is biased towards quick takeaways, fun-sized portions of entertainment and enlightenment. Some of us don’t have the time or we don’t make the time to grab a big, juicy novel at the end of the day and dive in.
And then some of us have a serious case of reading FOMO. I know I am one of them. We feel like we can’t keep up and we can’t figure out what to read and what to skip.
Today, we find out how our skimming habits trickle down and change the way writers work; we look at what happens when there’s just way, way too much to read; we ask if grabbing an old book off the shelf is still relevant; and then we meet someone who can help us wrangle all this reading abundance into something manageable and delightful.
I’m Manoush Zomorodi and this is IRL: Online Life is Real Life, an original podcast from Mozilla.
Chapter One: The Art of the Headline.
So, Michael mentioned off the top that he can be a headline-only kind of reader and I think we’re all guilty of that at times.
Derek Thompson: I might try one headline that’s a full sentence, such as, “Internet Headline Writers Hate Themselves.” I might try one that has a why or how to start things off. “Why Internet Deadline Writers Hate Themselves.” And then I might try one that’s a little bit more old fashioned and verbless like, “The Case Against Internet Headlines.”
Manoush Zomorodi: This is Derek Thompson. He’s a staff writer at “The Atlantic” magazine and writers like him, I mean, they know the game we’re playing. They know that shareability is more important than ever.
Derek Thompson: We need great headlines to get our work read and that’s what a headline is. It’s marketing. So it’s not a best friend, it’s not an enemy. Headlines are a best frenemy.
Manoush Zomorodi: Except there’s only so much bandwidth in a normal person’s day, and now, of course, when we search for news online, we are faced with a fire hose. There’s just way, way too much, and so we’re drawn to the executive summary or, yeah, even just the headline.
Manoush Zomorodi: Here’s how it works over at Derek’s magazine.
Derek Thompson: “The Atlantic” has lots of headlines that are full sentences. I’m looking at one right now. “The Midterms Could Permanently Change North Carolina Politics.” The deck is, “Democrats are trying to claw back power and Republicans are trying to change the constitution to make sure they don’t.”
Manoush Zomorodi: Deck means the second line, the subtitle.
Derek Thompson: That’s a full thought, right?
If you agree with the premise or disagree with the premise, someone who doesn’t want to read the whole article, but wants people to think they’ve read the whole article, could very easily say, “Great piece by David Graham on how Republicans are trying to change the North Carolina Constitution,” or, “Terrible piece by David Graham. Republicans are not trying to change the Constitution in North Carolina.”
Manoush Zomorodi: It’s not like skimming doesn’t have its place. I skim all the time because not every writer out there is as thoughtful as Derek and his coworkers at “The Atlantic.” There are many writers aggressively designing headlines to just make you click, almost like someone catfishing you on a dating site. They don’t care. They just want you to click.
Derek does care though.
Derek Thompson: Oh, sure. On the one hand, it really sucks as a writer to know that 90 to 95% of your work is going into the article, rather than the headline, but that 90 to 95% of your readers are going to stop at the headline and not read your article. That is an imbalance that just exists and it sucks.
At the same time, maybe it’s always been this way.
Manoush Zomorodi: The question is if this news-skimming, headline-only kind of reading is inherently a product of the internet, Derek thinks it’s an evolution of how we’ve always consumed our news.
Derek Thompson: I remember there was a, in my book, “Hit Makers,” I went back to the 1920s to read the first-ever piece of newspaper analytics that was ever published in American history. It was published by a guy named George Gallup. Gallup went around to Des Moines, Iowan homes and he asked Iowans, “When you pick up ‘The Des Moines Register,’ what do you read?” And the people said, “I read the front page. I read the political news. I read about local politics. I’m a good civic consumer.”
And then what he did is he and his team went through each day’s newspaper with these folks and pointed at articles and headlines and said, “Did you read this? Did you read this? Do you remember this?” It turned out that by far, the most popular piece of content among men was the political cartoon, not the political reporting, and the most popular thing among women was the fashion photos.
So even in 1920, the dudes were reading cartoons and the women were looking at photos. Right? I mean, plus ça change. We have the internet now, but what are we doing? We’re looking at photos and writing “LOL” over them.
Manoush Zomorodi: So we have this basic human impulse to gobble up easy info, but as with so much, the internet produces a massive uptick in quantity. It raises the degree of the problem.
Derek Thompson: I am realistic about the nature of newsreaders. We are not inherently a species that wants to read 1,500-word articles every day, all days of the week. We are a species that, from time to time, gets curious about reading longer articles and it’s our job, it’s the journalism community’s job, to do our best to, essentially, write that piece that punches that ticket.
Manoush Zomorodi: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at “The Atlantic.”
Okay, here’s something to consider. Neuroscientists have made it pretty clear the human brain cannot multitask. We may think we’re doing many things all at once, but actually, our brain is just switching attention very fast from one thing to another, so trying to understand everything, read everything at once? Not possible.
Chapter Two: An Anti-Tab Manifesto.
Ernie Smith: I think that people often have this tendency to keep all this stuff open because they don’t really have any self-control.
Manoush Zomorodi: This is Ernie Smith. He writes a newsletter called Tedium and he wrote a call to arms to those of us who make reading promises we cannot possibly keep.
I mean, has this happened to you? You’re reading a column on how to create new habits for the New Year, you’re also on a Wikipedia page about net neutrality, and you’re also browsing a listicle explaining why scrunchies are back in style. I mean, are they? Please, tell me the jury’s still out on that.
Anyway, in all these posts, they have embedded links leading to other interesting things, so you open a tab, and then another tab, and then another. Pretty soon – yeah, you know it – the tabs are breeding like bunnies and you can’t close them because they’re too important and interesting. So they sit there, taunting you.
Ernie Smith: Keeping a lot of tabs open is the information equivalent of scheduling 15 doctors appointments in a single week. There’s no way you’re going to make all of them. You’re going to drive yourself nuts trying.
Manoush Zomorodi: Tab clutter is the overstuffed closet of the reading mind and Ernie says, “We need to let it go.”
Ernie Smith: I’m aware that the next important detail might be hiding behind the next tab like the world’s smallest needle in the world’s largest haystack. But by keeping every tab open, I let the haystack win because I give every piece of information the same amount of value.
Manoush Zomorodi: Once in a while, something will happen, like your laptop will crash and you lose all those tabs at once. You freak out, of course, but then this feeling of relief sets in. Maybe that feeling is worth replicating on purpose. Ernie thinks so.
Ernie Smith: The thought process I had was that if I wasn’t necessarily looking at something within, say, a 20-minute period, I would set up a plug-in so that I would automatically close that tab because I figured, “Well, if I leave that tab open, I’m just probably …” It becomes a digital pack rat kind of situation, you know? At some point, you’re just like letting the idea of reading the story later beat out the simple desire to do searches and find information that you can use.
Manoush Zomorodi: It’s like the wardrobe rule. If you haven’t worn it in the last two years, then you need to donate that stupid blouse that you bought on holiday when you thought you were a new person.
Ernie Smith: I think that looking at reading from the expectation that you’re never going to get through everything, it kind of frees you a little bit to simply say, “Hey, this is something that I could have some control over.”
Manoush Zomorodi: In life, you can’t have it all, and you also can’t read it all. Find a link to Ernie’s manifesto in the show notes at IRLpodcast.org and sign up for his newsletter, Tedium, while you’re at it. I know, I know, I just gave you one more thing to read. Sorry!
Chapter Three: Don’t Let Good Books Go Bad.
No, let’s try this. Chapter Three: Make Books Great Again. I don’t like that either.
Chapter Three: Bringing Sexy Paperback.
The Pew Research Center says a quarter of American adults didn’t read a book in the past 12 months. In a 2017 survey from The Reading Agency, over two-thirds of Brits wish they had more time to read. It’s not so much that books, actual printed books, are going anywhere anytime soon, but there’s no denying that for many of us, concentrating on a good novel is just harder than it used to be.
It’s the kind of thing that Nancy Pearl also worries about. She’s a librarian and an author.
Nancy Pearl: I think that one of the things that worries me about the future of reading is that we don’t give reading the same sexiness or importance that we give other aspects of our life.
Manoush Zomorodi: Nancy is no Luddite. She’s embraced technology and online reading like most of us, but she does believe that there’s something about the printed page that can transport us in a way that digital reading cannot.
Nancy Pearl: It really gives us an understanding of other people. You know, Manoush, we spend so much time in our own heads and with the people who think the way we think, that we rarely get out of that. The place where you can get out of that, where you can spend time in another person’s consciousness, in another person’s shoes, if you will, is in the reading of a book.
Manoush Zomorodi: And what’s more, the value of a good book is even simpler for her.
Nancy Pearl: I think that when you’re reading a traditional book and you’re holding it in your hand and you have the physicality of it, not to mention the kind of aesthetic sense of that nice new book smell, that’s so different from reading on an eReader. To me, an eReader, it’s very cold. The page sort of exists there, but then it disappears when you turn it, when you turn to the next page.
Manoush Zomorodi: Maybe the difference is in how much space there is around the text, and I don’t mean how big the margins are, I mean how much psychological space. A lot of things tend to solve themselves when you build in a little mental elbow room.
There’s this quote from a French scientist called Blaise Pascal. Nancy and I both love it. It goes, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Nancy Pearl: Isn’t that wonderful?
Manoush Zomorodi: It is wonderful. What is it that is so important about maintaining the ability to sit down, alone, and read a book for half an hour?
Nancy Pearl: Because we need to time in our lives to reflect on what we’re reading, where we are in our life, what we’re doing. That sort of reflection that reading almost forces you to partake in, that kind of reflection can only be done in a quiet place.
Manoush Zomorodi: Nancy Pearl is a librarian and author in Seattle. She wrote, “Book Lust: A Guide to Good Reading.” She even has an action figure made in her likeness, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Chapter Four: Solutions in Your Ear and in Your Pocket.
People have always worried about how new tech changes how we interact with ideas. When people first started writing and reading, for example, ancient Greek philosopher Socrates freaked out. “If we could just write everything down,” he worried, “we’d lose our ability to remember!” That may be partly true, but we gained access to so much more information, and that is a wonderful thing.
So with today’s information overload, let’s not freak out like Socrates. Let’s look at a couple of ways we can manage and adapt our reading habits.
Beth Rogowsky: I always looked at listening to audiobooks as a form of cheating.
Manoush Zomorodi: This is Beth Rogowsky. She teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
Beth Rogowsky: But then I moved to Manhattan and I had about an hour commute on the train. I started listening to audiobooks. I became somewhat addicted.
Manoush Zomorodi: There’s been an explosion in audiobooks, and by extension, podcasts, like this one. With seemingly less time for everything, people are choosing to listen to stories more than ever. Beth, too.
Beth Rogowsky: Because listening to an audiobook was much easier than reading. I could kind of do other things, like be on a train. It wasn’t as cognitively demanding as sitting with a book and being focused for that.
Manoush Zomorodi: But Beth wondered if she retained as much information if she listened to a book instead of actually reading one. So, she did a study.
Beth broke the participants into groups. Some only listened to the book, some only read it, and some did both at the same time. Then they were all quizzed.
Beth Rogowsky: What we actually found was that it did not matter; you retained the same information. So it really made the case, if you’re needing to prep for book club, go ahead and enjoy that audiobook because you will still retain enough to be able to have an intelligent conversation on the book.
Manoush Zomorodi: Okay, so Beth Rogowsky says audiobooks can help us digest more content and more books. And yes, that is just one small study, but it’s encouraging. Where it won’t help though is with Ernie’s “tab everything” problem or Derek’s “Just the headlines, ma’am” problem.
Nate Weiner: There’s never been a time before where there is so much amazing, interesting stories and ideas and perspectives out there. The reality is, there’s more to consume than we probably have the time for.
Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah, that problem. This guy is Nate Weiner and he made an app that I’ve actually been using for years. Mozilla bought it in 2017. It’s called Pocket.
Nate Weiner: Pocket is a companion to help people discover content that’s worth their time and attention. It also creates this great personal space where you can capture and save the things that are fascinating to you and really be able to focus, absorb, and draw out all the great things that you discover on the web.
Manoush Zomorodi: Pocket gives you a nice, clean interface, totally distraction-free. You bookmark your reads wherever you find them, and when you’re ready, Pocket’s ready for you. It’s just the stuff that you have saved and a few curated suggestions from the Pocket team, if you’re interested.
Nate Weiner: The thing that we’re focused on, the metrics that we care about are actually not saves or just people who open the app, but are they successful? Do they come back and read the things they’ve saved? We look at those signals that help us indicate that they actually got value out of the product.
Manoush Zomorodi: Tools like Pocket show that we can curate material for ourselves. We can sort through the junk and find the quality stuff.
Nate Weiner: The reason why a lot of the fake news or misinformation shows up on platforms like Facebook or Twitter is because they are built for sensationalism, they are built for retweeting and clicking things that are meant to draw your attention. Then you land there and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know about this.” It’s rare that fake news actually gets saved to Pocket.
Manoush Zomorodi: Huh. That is really interesting.
Nate Weiner: Yeah!
Manoush Zomorodi: If you just would give someone a pep talk about getting back into reading, what would you … Because I do hear this from a lot of people. They’re like, “Oh my god. I just don’t read, really read, anymore.”
Nate Weiner: Yeah. Speaking personally, I think it’s two things. One is reading and sharing stories, it’s one of the only and best ways that we can just grow as people.
The other side of it, it is so easy to open up Twitter or Facebook or Reddit on my phone, but I never feel good about it after I leave. I never feel fulfilled. But when I actually go sit down and read something in Pocket, every single time I’m like, “Man, I need to do that more” because you feel like you’ve learned something or actually used that time valuably. That, to me, is the biggest reason to do it.
Manoush Zomorodi: That’s Nate Weiner. He is the Founder and CEO of Pocket.
Do you know what TL;DR stands for? It means, “Too long; didn’t read.” It’s a little flag you’ll find online that basically says, “Here’s the summary,” or, “Here’s the bullet point version in case you’re trying to digest this long read while hanging from a strap on the subway.” Letting you choose how you digest your content is something that we can definitely get behind here at IRL. So we wanted to give you a little TL;DR of our own. Here it is:
Thanks to the web, we have access to more things to read than ever. Too much, in fact. Our reading habits have shifted. We like to skim a lot. We look for full stories baked into headlines. We try and fail to manage how many things we read at once. Some of us can no longer concentrate on a book, no matter how good it might be. Reading has changed! And we can change alongside it. We can count on audiobooks and podcasts to help and read it later tools to curate our reading lists. I think it’s all going to be okay.
Mozilla owns Pocket and if you’re interested in trying it out, check out GetPocket.com and sign up for free, or you can find the link in the show notes and at IRLpodcast.org.
IRL is an original podcast from Mozilla, the not-for-profit that answers to internet users, not shareholders. If you haven’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I’d love it if you did, and let us know what you think. Leave a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts.
I’m Manoush Zomorodi. Thank you so much for listening and reading. I’ll see you back here in a couple of weeks.
I am kind of completely nerding out right now. I don’t know if you know this, but I’m like a Pocket freak. Talking to you is like talking to an app rockstar right now.
Nate Weiner: That is amazing. Thank you.