An uneventful day at the office.
“Let’s go for lunch. I’ve got something for you,” said Wen, calling from her windowless cubicle to mine.
“I double-subscribed it for twelve months,” she handed me a stack of The New Yorker, packed in clear plastic bags. “Hope you don’t mind – they’re all previous issues.”
I clearly didn’t mind, because I wouldn’t be able to read the whole thing from the top even if I bought the latest issue. And also because I have a minor hoarding disorder: whatever can be regarded as “data”, I collect and consider “useful”.
The ads are wonderful; I can keep them for my marketing writing course. The “Talk of the Town” section has many great insights into the goings-on of the latest Russo-Ukrainian war; I can use them in my academic writing class…
Two weeks later, I visited Wen’s office, and received another two issues. “Sorry Wen –”
“– Don’t be”, she cut me short understandingly, as if she had already expected what I felt about not being able to finish the ten issues she had given me. “It also took me quite some time to finish one”.
The thickness of the magazine is deceptive. There are no more than 20 pieces of writing in each issue, but each piece calls for deep concentration to finish in one go. I was able to finish half of “A Reporter At Large” (14 pages) on a 30-minute commute, interrupted by changing trains, my wandering mind, and Whatsapp messages popping up.
Sometimes I would peep over other passengers’ shoulders, as they were mindfully or mindlessly scrolling Instagram reels. Perhaps the best option for killing time on a train fully packed with passengers is not to extend your personal space with a book.
Losing Patience in a Fragmented World
Also the best option, perhaps, is to consume information as quickly as one can, for we often claim that “we have no time”.
I forget when I stopped watching a whole soccer or basketball match on television, as though all I need is watch match highlights. Or when I stopped getting up at 3 a.m. for Manchester United matches, or watch NBA games on Sunday mornings as if I were at Madison Square Garden.
And I forget when we started to decide whether to see a film or not by watching reviews and summaries on YouTube. We used to try our luck, and complain afterwards about shitty movies, or savour the meaningful scenes of brilliant movies.
Worse still, I forget when I started feeling antsy just listening to one song for the first two minutes, or when I started compiling playlists with just the hit tracks. I used to listen to CDs from the top, read CD booklets, study the musicians’ histories, and learn the guitar chords off the tracks.
The more choices we have, the fewer choices we make effectively. The harder it is for us to make decisions, the less patience we have, and the more anxious we become.
I am not surprisedI am growing more impatient as I skip songs on Spotify, video-surf on YouTube, and finally settle with 30-second IG stories and “reels”. As I mindlessly scroll reel after reel, I fear two things: either overdosing on useless information or missing out anything “important”.
It’s not hard to realise most contents on social media are “fragmented” information that doesn’t require viewers’ conscious processing. The algorithm recommends the content the viewers want to see based on their viewing habits. So most of us know social media waste our time, but they become so addictive that we are worried about not getting enough. This fear of missing out eventually devours us – we only see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear – and confines us in the echo chamber.
As information becomes more fragmented, I find it very difficult to synthesise these piecemeal ideas into a coherent whole. It’s impossible to understand how my favourite basketball team performs by only watching clips highlighting all of Steph Curry’s three-point shots in a game. There’s also no way I would know how hard it is to raise a cat, as it’s hard to learn much about their habits from only seeing reels of “illegal smol kitteh” – a netspeak referring to “cute small kitties”.
I find that social media slowly eats up my patience at work. Because all the information from social media is so accessible, I get easily distracted when I am supposed to stay focused, especially when I need to finish a task in a coherent “flow”. I struggle to read longer texts, watch full seminar videos, and do extensive research work.
Wen’s double-subscribed The New Yorker magazines have just arrived in time to save my digital health and overall well-being. The first thing to do, of course, is to “find time”.
Re-learning how to appreciate long reads
Before I move on to share how I appreciate long reads, I need to define what a “long read” is and is not. Guardian defines it on their “The Long Read” page as “in-depth reporting, essays, and profiles”. Long reads often possess a narrative structure, starting with background or a brief timeline of the event/ incident. The middle section deconstructs the subject matter, analyses each component contributing to the story, illustrates the persons’ perspectives, all of which help develop the story. Towards the end of the long read, the author connects the past with the present, adds her/his insight and wraps up with a future outlook – optimistic, grim, ambivalent, etc.
Long reads can be about local and international affairs, music, novels and so on. They can also be short stories, like the two-page “The Fiction” section in The New Yorker.
I do not consider articles in academic journals as “long reads”. Technically speaking, they are, but not for leisure. I have tried to read journal articles on the train but always doze off in minutes. Journal articles are something to be read strategically instead of linearly from the top – no one in the industry should do the latter – because of this, treating them as a leisure read is never appropriate. If we cannot tell work reads from leisure reads, leisure itself is simply impossible.
The best time to do long reads is when I have a coffee in the morning, either at home or the office. This is the uninterrupted time I enjoy, with no calls or messages (I simply put my phone away).
I read the stories from the top, but with some strategies I have developed as a linguist: I look for places where the author “shifts gears”. I would focus on, for example, how they use tense to bring the reader from the past (the story’s background) to the present (authors’ comments); or what language the author uses to evaluate the subject matter, or the persons involved. Some excerpts of interest from “The Talk of the Town” from a recent issue (ellipses mine):
Truth Social is a characteristic Trump business: opaque and unconvincing… As the self-described “king of endorsements”, Trump has drawn an eclectic parade of supplicants to Mar-a-Lago… Trump failed dramatically to put his men in position for state offices in Georgia… Trump’s grip on Trumpism may be loosening a little, but the malignancy he has seeded in American politics cannot be eradicated anytime soon… Trump apparently feels no compunction, as a former President, about questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s courts or the rule of law.(“The Trump Primaries”, 2022, June 13)
The highlight words represent the author’s criticial, at times sarcastic, remarks against Trump. These words attempt to put “Trump” and a very dense word, “Trumpism”, in context. I may not know exactly what “Trumpism” means, but the author’s stance has made their scorn rather obvious.
It doesn’t take a linguist to be able to “sense” this, but as one who researches evaluative language, I find it particularly interesting to identify the author’s stance through their language choice. In the process of “studying” the text, I had to look up the highlighted words from the dictionary, meaning that I’m also learning something new from reading.
It’s pretty amusing to see myself treating leisure reads seriously – I’m always analysing texts for work, so is this really leisure reading? Maybe different readers have other approaches to reading long reads; I have a tendency to find something meaningful from all readings. I don’t really give a damn about Trump, but articles about him, supporting or opposing him give me a very interesting cross-section view of how the other side of the world has been running.
Whether the grass is greener on the other side, or otherwise, I can still find my own tranquillity through appreciating something in a coherent whole. I also find my patience back in reading books and watching videos of considerable lengths.
The most important thing is making time for it.
Epilogue: Questions for Future Creatives and Creative Works
Doing long reads also makes me reflect on the content I’ve been creating. I am often worried about click rates. As evidenced by the increasing popularity of the internet abbreviation “TL;DR”, netizens’ attention span has been shrinking – few people really cared about finishing long articles.
That said, if I’m to encourage my students to enjoy long reads, it will still be through writing a long read to explain to them how they can enjoy them (like the one you’re currently reading). I do have bite-size content on my Instagram, but nothing compares to a reading that is organised, that provokes our thoughts, calms our minds, and encourages our patience. Patience is hard. It’s something we often lack the patience to develop.
So the questions to wrap up my thoughts are: do we really have to follow the trend and change our ways of producing quality content? If we stick to texts, what makes our creations more appealing than something with great visual impact?
At least I won’t twerk in front of the camera when I talk about linguistics or teach writing. Small victories.