The Death of Old Reading Habits (and the Birth of the New)

Patti Smith quotes have a way of goring me like Pamplona bulls. Awed by their insight, I stand straighter and see more clearly even as my innards fall out. So it was with this little killer of a declaration, spied in the jacket of Jessica Hopper’s The Girls’ Guide to Rocking at ALA: I wasn’t born to be a spectator. Four days ago, it crept into a dream I had about Smith becoming a librarian in her twilight years. White hair braided, sateen black blazer gleaming, she boomed from a podium, Don’t ever be just a spectator in your profession!

I was shaken when I woke up; I lay in bed wondering what the hell it all meant. A big clue was on the floor in the form of three unfinished books configured like a baby hand of cards, with my cat, Cleo, perched on top, grooming herself. It’s not exactly kosher for me to say this because of what I do for a living, but since I know I’m not alone, here goes: I read far fewer books than I did five, ten years ago. How and why this happened has been troubling because books are how I fell in love with the concepts that sustain me‚ wanderlust, prix fixe, punk rock, librarianship.

It’s very easy to blame the noise, as my librarian tweep @Bethazon put it this week. In my life, this equals text messages, Twitter, iTunes,, Gmail, and Mad Men on DVD. But after 12 years in New York City, I’ve become a noise-management expert. I take back bedrooms in apartments to elude car alarms, fight stereophonic finches with a white noise machine, and meditate my way through the hell that is Times Square. Noise? Noise ain’t shit.

So what really gives? I keep asking myself at the bus stop most mornings. I found another clue with the Smith quote. Curious to know its source, I googled it like any good citizen of the Internet and came up with a 1975 profile of the poet rocker in Mademoiselle, which, in turn, pointed to a piece Smith wrote for Crawdaddy. It dawned on me in the middle of this loop how much I toiled before such a powerful search engine to glean my little intellectual earthquakes. As a teenage culture-sucking vampire in Bismarck, North Dakota, I spent hours at the public library looking up old Rolling Stone profiles of my musical heroes U2 and The Clash. Sitting in the darkest corner I could find, I’d reread anecdotes until they were committed to memory, back and head aching.

At home, I’d hoard Vanity Fair from my dad and voracious siblings for its book excerpts. Many thanks to Graydon Carter for turning me on to one of my all-time favorite reads, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk Rock by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, which I treated like a sacred text. In the summer of 1996 when I should’ve been getting trashed with my first college boyfriend, I was tabbing favorite passages with yellow Post-It notes and trying to get Carl Sandburg.

During my twenties, I perfected the almost archaeological process of unearthing, dissecting, and displaying books that began with Please Kill Me, graduating to Dubliners, The Age of Innocence, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. The idea of canon was paramount, so much that at 20, I tortured myself by slogging through Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century because it made so many essential punk rock bibliographies. In the long and short run, Marcus’s jizzing on about French situationism meant jack to me. Still, undeterred, I kept searching, fueled by earlier satisfying works, hitting more walls in the oeuvres of Robert Palmer (too straightforward), Nick Tosches (too dark), and Ann Powers (a touch stiff). Finally, after a tip from a creative writing professor at my Minnesota alma mater, I found proto rock critic Lester Bangs, my favorite, hands down, with his jazzy rhythms. His Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung anthology earned instant bedside status.

That brings us up to today. In 2010, I have a commute, a full-time job, a yoga practice, a second novel in the works, and a cat. I’m not as young as I used to be, and I never will be again. The sheer energetic investment I put into books isn’t possible anymore. While I could’ve given up reading them altogether like some of my friends, I’ve developed a more efficient way of feeding my head. Blogs, websites, and tweets are easier to navigate than print and electronic books. If I come across an arresting snippet, I always find out from whence it came, but I don’t necessarily need or want to ingest all of the source material (I did with the Smith quote‚ it was delightfully atmospheric Seventies journalism).

Lesson: I don’t think I should feel bad about adapting. And yet here I am at the end of this post feeling a pinch of guilt. From my desk stares Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, which I finished on the C train this morning. Over the Fourth of July holiday, Thomas, like Smith, reminded me with a few razor-sharp lines the way a writer will break your heart and give you theirs if only you’ll make the effort of finding them. Abby’s book wasn’t mentioned anywhere I’d been trolling around online; I found it on the bookshelf at a beach house in Strathmere, NJ, as if it’d been waiting for me like a boy at a dance.

Lesson: Reward has a price, and I’ll pay it now and then.

(Special thanks to @Bethazon, @JustinLibrarian, and @booksquare for inspiring this piece.)

Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.


  1. Beth Nerbonne says:

    That was excellent, and inspiring. Honestly. Loved it. And I know like you even a little bit more than I did before. Now, to go read Please Kill Me, like I’ve been meaning to for years…

  2. Excellent post. I believe that what you’ve found about yourself is true for many people today. This is one of the reason why devices like the iPad, which has both its supporters and detractors, has captured the collective attention all around. Many of said that it really isn’t the ideal device for long form reading, but for the types of reading that many people are doing today (blogs, e-mails, online news, etc.) it excels.

    Internet readers have much different habits than novel readers. They tend to flit from one site to another, skimming through the text, unless it captures their interest, but even that interest can be ephemeral. There is lower attention spans and more impatience with slower pacing. Ironically, people are reading more, but they’re reading differently and absorbing the information in new ways.

    Once again, great post.

  3. Andy says:

    What a great post! I’ve also found that my reading time gets sucked up by blogs and electronic media, and yet sometimes I think that makes the time shared with a really great book even more precious. The hardest part is forcing myself to lengthen my attention span long enough to focus on one thing and really let myself become absorbed in it.

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