Ever heard of L. Brooks Patterson? Me neither till a few days ago when I learned he’s the ‘county executive’ of a large district outside Detroit. Blunt and arrogant, revered and reviled with equal intensity, Patterson is credited with running one of the most economically efficient counties in America, and I know all about him thanks to a long profile in The New Yorker. Mind you, I’m still not sure I give a hoot about Patterson but thanks to the magazine’s reliably exceptional writing my insomnia-addled brain was happily engaged reading about him for some time, and along the way I learned a thing or two about the tragic decline of Detroit, urban American politics, and the curious pathology of unrelenting self promotion.

I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber for many years now, and what I’ve just described happens often when a new issue turns up. In the old days, I’d rip off the plastic cover with a sense of delight and anticipation, anxious to see what I’d find in that week’s issue. After mentally bookmarking whichever articles caught my eye, I’d skip ahead to the movie reviews where Anthony Lane on a mean streak can make me wet myself with laughter, before reversing back to ‘Talk of the Town’ at the front of the magazine with its fly-on-the-wall ephemera and short-form commentary on politics and the economy.

I say ‘the old days’ because that all changed when my husband bought me an iPad, after a string of increasingly less subtle hints. A lifelong insomniac, I desperately hoped that a dimly lit screen I could curl up with under the covers would at least save me from having to switch on the light and risk waking my husband, or actually leaving the room and risk the creaking floorboards waking our children.

I was sure I’d never read a novel on my iPad, but I switched to The New Yorker app with far less ambivalence than I’d anticipated. Other than a few aggravating bugs in the app (and an aggravatingly useless reply about them from The New Yorker), I continued reading the digital edition quite happily for several months.

I don’t recall precisely what drew my attention to the new deficiencies in my reading, but at some point I noticed that over the course of a few weeks I’d missed several articles of the L. Brooks Patterson variety, which had initially caught my eye but which I had never returned to. Puzzled, I had a look at the tables of contents of a handful of recent issues and spotted an alarming number of stories that rang no bells whatsoever. And then it occurred to me that I’d more or less forgotten about Talk of the Town and hadn’t even glanced at the readers’ letters in some time. All of this might seem odd since since I’d never read the print version chronologically anyway, but I could only conclude that the digital interface – despite being virtually identical in layout to the print edition and (arguably) enhanced by some interactive features – had frustrated my sense of the magazine’s geography. Instead, I began navigating The New Yorker app the way I do online newspapers and magazines, distractedly jumping here and there, gravitating towards familiar themes and rarely making my way back anywhere.

Indeed, my New Yorker observations prompted me to consider my other reading habits. Although it was the birth of my twins that had derailed my weekend ritual of reading the Financial Times (save the revoltingly unironic ‘How To Spend It’ supplement) on Saturdays and The Observer on Sundays, since domestic life has become moderately more manageable I’ve never really taken up that routine again. Instead, I browse The New York Times and The Guardian online most days and The Observer on the weekend, invariably drawn to the comments pages with their grinding output of ‘opinion’ about the ‘new’ feminism, the hubris of bankers, the weakness of Ed Miliband, the butchery of Assad, and so on. I used to look at The Evening Standard and The Independent every once in a while, too, until the adverts became so unwieldy it was impossible to scroll down the body of an article.

I tend to click on the same topics over and over again, rarely read hard news stories beyond the headline and a couple of paragraphs, and browse the readers’ comments mostly to remind myself (again) of how crass and mean-spirited people become when anonymity relieves them of accountability. Sure, I come across plenty of interesting articles through Twitter but the people I follow are selected by me based on the same instincts and biases that dictate how I browse news sites. What I don’t do is turn the pages of a magazine or newspaper to see what’s next, my eyes possibly alighting on a story about something or someone I know little or nothing about, and which I would never have discovered in a link-driven environment where there are no anchors, just surfboards.

As I pondered these newfound habits, my ingestion of current affairs began to look less like grazing Babette’s Feast than confronting an all you can eat buffet at a suburban strip mall. Overwhelmed by choice of uncertain quality, I opt for comfortingly familiar eggs on toast off the a la carte menu. The result – if you’ll permit me to switch metaphors – is not just an impoverished intellect but curiosity left idling at the kerb and a degraded sense of the ‘self’ that delights in quirky ephemera, ideas for their own sake and reading for pleasure.

With all of this in mind, last weekend I bought the Financial Times for the first time in a while. As it happened, ‘Lunch with the FT’ featured Nick D’Aloisio, the teenage wunderkind who sold his Summly startup to Yahoo for $30-million. Summly’s mission, embodied in a range of increasingly complex apps, is to summarise web content so you needn’t click through from a search to see what you’ve found. Over roast pork, D’Aloisio – who is clearly bright, inquisitive and serious-minded – described how he had briefly subscribed to The Economist but found there just wasn’t time in the day to do it justice so he dropped it. I could relate to that; it reminded me of the anxiety I used to feel as unread copies of The New Yorker would occasionally pile up next to my bed during busy times.

But the interview also reminded me of the forecast a few years back that news would soon be completely ‘customised’ to reflect your own preferences and interests, and delivered straight to your Inbox (already an old fashioned notion thanks to social media). This claim was invariably mooted with the breathless enthusiasm merited by some genuinely utopian ideas the Internet has given us, such as Creative Commons licenses. At the time, though, the prospect filled me with a vague sense of alarm, and now I know why. Left to my own devices and with limited time on my hands, would I carefully select reading material that would present a broad range of ideas and expose me to topics I don’t yet know I’m interested in? Would I learn about gene therapy in China and the new brain science? Would I know about Nick D’Aloisio and Aaron Swartz – or just Mark Zuckerberg?

On balance, I’ll happily admit that digital media have enhanced my life in countless ways, and ironically one of them is the consumption of e-books. I was sure that if I tried reading one, I’d long for the feel of paper beneath my fingers and the dog-eared copy I’d place among the others on my shelf. When I decided to give it a shot, I was delighted by the ability to choose a font, change the type size so I can read without my glasses on, bookmark where I’ve left off. I love downloading samples that help me gauge whether I’m really interested or just like the sound of something. As for magazines and newspapers, it’s the content, stupid: I’ve gone back to print to see what I’ve been missing.

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