I was in fourth grade when the Challenger disaster occurred, but I never saw footage of the explosion until this year, when I watched the CNN newscast from January 28, 1986 on my phone’s YouTube app. Many schools that day assembled their students in classrooms or auditoriums to watch the launch live and celebrate Christa McAuliffe’s ascent into outer space as the first teacher-astronaut. My school didn’t have the capacity for that kind of broadcast, but some parents kept their children home during the morning to watch the launch. Mine obviously didn’t. My only memory of that day is coming in from lunchtime and seeing my friend, Erik, weeping outside our classroom (the doors were locked during lunch, after which we’d line up waiting for our teacher to open them). His mother had kept him out that morning to watch the launch and sent him in after the explosion. He was just standing there alone, crying.
Maybe that’s why I avoided watching the Challenger footage until this year, during a break from reading Margaret Lazarus Dean’s Leaving Orbit, an account of the last three space shuttle launches that also serves as an autopsy for our country’s space program. Watching the failed Challenger launch on my phone, I started irrationally hoping that the launch would succeed and was devastated (like a fourth grader) seeing the shuttle burst into flames. To cheer myself up, I searched YouTube for a video called “Buzz Aldrin punches guy” and watched Aldrin clock Bart Sibrel, a moon-walker conspiracy theorist. Then, having sated my curiosity about two events that Dean describes in her book, I returned to the page and read on about the last three launches. Although, I must admit, I did take a few more breaks to watch successful shuttle launches and an extended version of Aldrin punching Sibrel in the face.
I read dozens of year-end book lists in December, which forced me to reflect on my own, odd year of reading – odd in that nearly every book I read prompted me to watch corresponding video on YouTube. Perhaps it’s because I read mostly non-fiction, and the subject matter easily lent itself to audio-visual confirmation of the words on the page, or perhaps it’s just because my attention span has shrunk to the point where watching a video of a space shuttle explosion in the midst of reading is no different from checking email or Twitter. No matter the explanation, 2015 was a year of YouTube-assisted reading, and I worry that this habit of breaking off from a book to watch a three minute clip on my phone may be detrimental to my reading existence.
“A Pryor Love,” Hilton Als’s essay on Richard Pryor in White Girls, begins with a discussion of a scene from Lily Tomlin’s 1973 self-titled show, in which Pryor plays a recovering heroin addict and Tomlin plays the soul food waitress taking care of him. A few years ago, I would have read the essay, admired Als’s analysis, and moved on to the collection’s next piece. In 2015, though, I couldn’t help but search YouTube for the Juke and Opal sketch; sure enough it was there waiting for me, all ten minutes of it. When I finished Becoming Nicole, Amy Ellis Nutt’s account of a family whose son transitions in elementary school to a daughter, I was able to watch the YouTube clip of Nicole’s guest spot on Burn Notice (playing a transgender teenager hiding her identity from her parents) as well as a seemingly endless number of interviews with Nicole, her twin brother, and her parents. I read the fourth volume of My Struggle and watched Karl Ove Knausgaard talk at the New York Public Library. I read Chloe Caldwell’s collection of personal essays, Legs Get Led Astray, and watched her read at the San Francisco Public Library. I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts twice, and both times I took a break to watch the trailer for By Hook or By Crook, the movie that stars her husband, Harry Dodge. When I look back at my 2015 reading list, it’s much harder for me to find a book that I read without checking YouTube (Rachel Cusk’s Outline, one of the few novels I read last year, is one, as is Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, whose subject matter is uber-personal) than it is to grab, say, Justin St. Germain’s memoir, Son of a Gun, off my bookshelf and remember how that book prompted me to watch scenes from the movie, Tombstone.
One of the last books I read in 2015 was Elena Passarello’s essay collection, Let Me Clear My Throat, which is a series of meditations on the human voice. This book was the perfect culmination for a year of YouTube-assisted reading: each essay practically begged for a video or audio clip to complement Passarello’s descriptions. After reading “Communication Breakdown,” how could I not watch Howard Dean’s infamous “Byah!” shout that sunk his chances in the Democratic primaries? And how could I not follow that up by watching the Dave Chappelle sketch that parodied Dean’s shout? One of my favorite essays in Let Me Clear My Throat is its most personal piece, “Harpy,” in which Passarello recounts her quest to win the Stella Shouting Contest held yearly in New Orleans. She discusses the YouTube clip of her shout, a spectator-shot video titled “Yay! A girl is the winner of the 2011 Stella Shouting Contest in New Orleans,” so perhaps I can be forgiven for putting a bookmark in that page and grabbing my phone to watch her scream “Stella!” three times. Passarello writes about Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, death scenes from Quentin Tarantino films, and the unique drawl of a Pittsburgh sportscaster. All of these voices and sounds are easily accessible with a smart phone, YouTube app, and a decent wireless connection.
Sometimes, after finishing a book I’ve particularly enjoyed, I send a thank you email to the author. When I emailed Passarello, though, I felt inclined to say more than thanks. I felt a need to confess how much YouTube video watching I did while reading her book. I asked her if this bothered her, whether she cared if her readers interrupted their engagement with her essays to watch videos of the subjects she’d taken such care to describe. “The act of writing the book involved a lot of you-tubing and googling,” she wrote back, “so I think in a way I did expect readers to engage in similar practices. . . I understand that 60-80% of the references in the book are just a Google-search away, and I think I inadvertently write to that possibility for readers. Of course, I also understand that some of the work of the book is to make those trips to the Internet unnecessary.” So I was forgiven – sort of. She continued: “I know that when I advise students that are writing about culture, I talk a lot about representing sound or video on the page and how to do that in a way that utterly satisfies. But I don’t even know if that’s possible nowadays. Even if you provide a visceral, spot-on description, that effort’s success could be measured by a reader running to the Internet to see that clip for herself.”
In “Reading: The Struggle,” a 2014 essay in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks frets about “the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.” Let’s assume he’s talking about all literature, not just fiction, when he says that and when he adds “every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for,” because “when we read there are more breaks, ever more frequent stops and restarts, more input from elsewhere, fewer refuges where the mind can settle. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.” My favorite time to read is when I’m on the subway, crammed between two people so that I can’t get to my phone without elbowing my neighbors. The best books make me miss my stop. When I have no interruptions, I don’t want to stop reading.
I spend less than 20 minutes of my day on the subway, though. And the answer to my YouTube viewing problem can’t be more subway time. Parks says, “More and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book.” Perhaps what most distresses me about my distracted reading style is that I don’t seem to have this energy. Parks proposes that writers will have to adapt to their smart phone-connected readers. Future books will need “shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.” Watching YouTube videos during these time outs does, to some extent, still keep me connected to the book, at least in comparison to how Parks pictures most readers using their time outs (email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). Still, I hate the idea of my favorite writers having to conform to the shrinking attention spans of readers like me.
I hope that the answer, if there must be an answer to the “struggle” of reading, isn’t changing the way the book is written but rather the way the book is read. I’ve never read anything on a Nook, Kindle, or iPad, but I might try doing so after my email exchange with Passarello. I asked her about her own reading habits and whether she ever broke away from a book to watch something on YouTube. She answered quickly that an article on 70 mm film production sent her to YouTube to watch a clip about the 70 mm restoration of Ben Hur, but then she went into much greater detail about her experience reading Frank: The Voice. “I read James Kaplan’s Sinatra biography on an iPad that provided links to many of the songs and recording sessions Kaplan writes about, so you could immediately click on a link as you read, and that was so very satisfying. The song in question would play on the iPad as I read Kaplan’s discussion of it. I’d love to make books that allowed for that kind of hyper textual conversation. My own essay about Sinatra, ‘Teach Me Tonight,’ was re-published in 2012 by an online magazine called BETTER. They took the time to embed a few dozen links in the text, and I was really pleased by that. I don’t write these essays imagining readers taking breaks to immediately go down these wormholes, but if I knew I could publish in a way that every sentence could have the option of an embedded link, I would choose that.”
As a reader, I might choose that, too. When I left for work this morning, I kissed my 14-month-old son goodbye, and he barely looked up from his new favorite toy, a fake smart phone that’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing. His older sister, when she was that age, used to sit by her bookcase, pull one book out after another, and flip through the pages in her toddler version of reading. That was just three years ago. In other words, future writers and readers may not even have the option to choose.
Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York.