A Different Kind of Reader

a glimpse of a not-too-distant past

Everyone should read this reflection by Frank Chimero — no matter how long it takes. Here’s Chimero summing up his thoughts on websites that estimate how many minutes you’ll need to invest in reading something:

I understand that there is too much to read, and I get that it is nice to know what a text expects from its reader. But it is shitty to come to a piece of writing without any generosity, and it is maybe just as bad to make design choices which produce that disposition.

When something has a price put on it, the price makes you stingy. A writer shouldn’t have to start at a deficit — writing is difficult enough — and a reader shouldn’t feel indulgent for spending more than 5 minutes with something. I think readers, writers, and writing deserve better.

Chimero’s essay reminds me of something that happened to my wife many, many years ago. She was visiting our local public library, and stopped to browse the magazine shelves. She picked up an issue of the New Yorker, and started thumbing through it. As one page crossed her line of vision, she paused.

skin

“At War with My Skin.” “Personal History.” She started reading. She kept reading. She wove her way sinuously through the triple-columned, advertising-and-cartoon-dotted pages of the magazine. It was hard to tell how much she had read — one column’s worth on one page, three on another, then two, then one again — and no way to know how long it would keep going, unless she stopped reading to flip ahead. But she didn’t want to pause. She kept reading.

And then, finally, after who knows how long, the end:

byline

Ah. It was John Updike. She might have known. But she didn’t know.

Chimero writes of “design choices which produce that disposition” — the disposition to be over-scrupulous in counting your time, to weigh every minute on some implausibly precise scale of the Worthwhile. The design of the New Yorker in 1985 could scarcely be more different. You don’t know, as you start reading a prose piece, how long it is — and it’s not easy to find out. You can flip the pages until you come to the end, but along the way you have to do rough calculations of how many words are on any given page, and that’s … well, it’s pretty much impossible, given the variability of the layout.

layout

And if you don’t flip to the end, you don’t even know who wrote the damned thing. The writing is meant to speak for itself — or, perhaps more exactly, to speak for the judgment of the editors, which you are expected to trust.

Everything about the layout of the New Yorker in those days assumes a reader who reads the whole magazine, perhaps from cover to cover — a reader of leisure, a reader with intimate knowledge of and deep trust in the magazine itself. A reader of the kind that some of us once were.

Exported from Medium on October 7, 2014.