Why You Should Read a Book and Stop Skimming Wikipedia

Two pupils leaning on a pile of books while reading on touchpad

By Lance Nichols

At the beginning of next semester it will be two years since my hometown high school went completely digital. All students received a school-issued Mac, virtually all textbooks shelved for inexpensive, downloadable files, and paper homework is nearly nonexistent. Every student would be apart of the network and use web apps to complete assignments, much like Blackboard in college. When I was told this educational “evolution” was going to take place the year following my graduation, I, with the rest of my graduating class, felt slighted. We had to hand-write most of our work and lug around old, outdated textbooks. Who doesn’t want a “free” Mac-book to listen to music, play MMORPGs (massively-multiplayer, online role-playing games), and sometimes do homework?

I feel quite differently now.

On this, The Missouri Review’s slick, sleek website, it is fairly easy to find and accomplish any task a reasonable Internet surfer might imagine they need to perform, whether or not they are familiar with the literary magazine. That is good. I’d like to think the straightforward nature of our website might lead to an increase of submissions from authors that otherwise wouldn’t think to submit—authors who, for whatever reason, have no familiarity with literary magazines, entirely. It is always my goal to listen for voices that might otherwise go unheard, and what better way to do that than with the exposure and access the Internet gives to residents and users? It’s the democratization of the voice, itself, right?

This hopeful, progressive sentiment is doubtful. Visitors to our site are likely to be subscribers or prior submitters—a smaller, insular group with specific, literary interest. Though it is disheartening to see that population continue to shrink, it doesn’t make literature and the literary world any less valuable.

Quite true, inversely, just because something is popular doesn’t make it good. Unfortunately, that is the mechanic of the Internet. In fact, the route through which I’m sure many of you came to this post, Google, has a business model that runs as cool as a perpetual-motion machine thanks to its ingenious algorithms and marketing scheme. Roughly, AdWords presents sites with high-traffic and high ad-space bids. But content filtered by traffic is not truly representative. The obvious implication is that, first, our choice of search engine will have at least some effect on our results, but also it will be those on the Internet the most who will determine what the rest of us see. Don’t believe me? Just open up a new tab to Youtube, pick a video about or involving a woman (but really, this would work with truly any video), and scroll down to the comments. Notice that they shrilly screech with a distinctly masculine tone. There are those or any of the other organized, anti-feminist outbursts that erupt with seeming regularity. Beyond that, as stated before, those sites that are going to get the most traffic not only must be seen, they must be quick and easy to use—they must be “intuitive.”

Such is TMR’s great website: economic use of space, cohesive design, blocks of text only where completely necessary, such as submission instructions and blog posts. Even with the latter, brevity is key. Reading on the Internet is characterized by text that can be skimmed, and, Wikipedia-like, peppered with hyperlinks that lead off and away down an information rabbit-hole. Telling is the fact that on any of Wikipedia’s millions of pages, clicking on the first link in the text and then repeating the process for subsequent articles will inevitably lead you to the page for “philosophy.” I’m definitely not the first to illustrate how antithetical such superficial reading practices are to understanding any philosophy; as any meme will tell you, the Internet loves irony.

So how does this relate to the digital curriculum my younger brother uses as a high school sophomore and my youngest brother will use as a sixth grader? If the type of interface that makes our experiences on the Internet good requires reading to be skimmed and skipped through, if intuitive technology relies on our inability to sustain an interest in one piece of reading, then maybe good technology doesn’t make for good reading and education? Additionally, maybe the simple nature of Internet use engenders antisocial behavior and gives a louder mic to those who would give in to the messages of terror, exploitation, and hatred?

We should definitely take these arguments into consideration as we continue to move quickly into the future. There is no use in attempting to revert back to what we had before; the Internet has been fully uploaded into our lives. I will choose to echo such writers as Nicholas Carr when I advocate the pursuit of moderation. While computers are great for making tasks easier, such as facilitating submissions, we should always remember that some things are difficult for a reason.

Comments Off, Comments On

7937304368_ece8985ecc_bRecently, the magazine Popular Science made the decision to shut off comments from their articles. The editors asserted that a small but vocal and vociferous group of commenters continued to undermine legitimate scientific research. Because of what they see as a “politically motivated, decades long war on expertise” eroding the confidence in their work and reportage, Popular Science decided they had enough of the trolls and fanatics. You can, and should, read the post here.

Around the same time, Google decided to go the other direction with YouTube: they are trying to make comments better. They are taking several steps to make comments more user-friendly by sorting through what is most relevant (rather than chronological) and linking commenters by their Google+ accounts to avoid spam and faceless bile. You can read the entire post here.

Most, if not all, content management systems and web design creates a comments section for every new post. In our case, WordPress is our CMS and it includes programs that filter out most of the spam. If there are comments on our blog that are negative, they are written by real live people not spamming programs. The comments on TMR are limited to our blog. And, for the most part, the comments over the last few years that might be construed as negative usually refer to my poor spelling and convoluted syntax. But we have received comments that could be considered rude, offensive, or antagonistic. Why haven’t we turned the comments often, or at least deleted the comments we find troubling?

Literary magazines have always received mail in response to our publications. Whether it is via the postal service or through email, we hear from our readership. Most of the time, these are pleasant letters, thanking us for the issue, and usually focusing on a particular piece that resonated. Of course, we’ve also received hate mail, most of which we find funny. We keep these. Every journal I’ve worked at keeps a file of “fan mail” and periodically, we flip through it for laughs. I’m fairly positive every literary magazine has a file (or box or filing cabinet) of these ditties.

The literary world is a bigger place now. Literary journals and magazines can now exist solely online, and print and online journals are also part of a world of culture sites like The Rumpus, The Millions, and HTML Giant, as well as portions of Slate, the New York Times, Huffington Post, etc. You get the idea.

Whether it’s a small startup print journal or the entertainment section of a massive website, all literary publishers are seeking a readership that is fickle and difficult to capture. I’m no longer surprised when I meet a fellow writer who asks me, cautiously, if it’s true that TMR and other top journals only publish their friends, that you have to have some sort of In to be published in our pages. There is a belief that the literary system is rigged, that it truly isn’t a meritocracy. “Elitism” is the sneering term thrown at not just Popular Science, but all publishers that are viewed as some sort of gatekeepers.

My belief is that what our readership who don’t understand our publication (how we work, why we publish what we do, how we find manuscripts, etc.) and lash out negatively are doing so not because of elitism but because of a lack of transparency. Literary journals rarely explain how they function. Despite what you might see in a fashion spread of the editorial offices of the Paris Review, most of the work is quiet and steady. We spend lots of time reading quietly. We send lots of correspondence. We file lots of paperwork and try to organize all our files. Our daily operation, as much as we enjoy it, just isn’t that exciting.

Our blog is our best way of directly engaging with our audience. The blog is what gives voice, personality, and insight into how TMR works by posting about the relevant news in publishing, editing, and writing. We want to keep this open and available to our readers. Because we are fortunate enough to have a diverse range of writers on our staff, we have something to offer our audience (and a general literary audience) with original content. And it’s important that those readers know they engage us on what we say, that we are willing to say “Yup, we’re wrong about that” or “Okay, let’s clarify this” or any other appropriate response to, say, MFA programs, the AWP conference, Jonathan Franzen’s criticism of technology, and so forth.

Further, our audience is almost entirely intelligent and reasoned. They know that our blog is a welcome place, not a closed off one. This isn’t a small thing; it’s an achievement we’ve been cultivating for years. We can’t be scared off because there are a handful of trolls or negativity out there in the world. Audience engagement and openness is, should be, part of the mission statement for any literary journal. And that won’t change with us.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye