Cheeseburger Gothic

Doing less of the things you do in bed

Posted September 6, 2013 into Books by John Birmingham

Like reading. Josephine Tovey has written of her struggle to keep up the good reading habits of her earlier days because the modern world provides so many distractions.

I left Nelson Mandela in a lime quarry on Robben Island, the same way I abandoned Clarissa Dalloway on her way to the florist, and Ishmael, only shortly after he set sail. That was how far I managed to get into Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, before the books joined the mushrooming pile by my bedside, or the increasingly fraudulent display that is my bookshelf.

I was enjoying each one. But I couldn’t seem to finish them.

Nelson, Clarissa and Ishmael were all abandoned for twitter, facebook and netflix. Jo felt as though the internet had trained her out of long form reading, that the endless one minute pleasure spasms of reading one Buzzfeed listicle after another had made her as incapable of sinking into the challenge of literature as most 20/20 batsmen would be of playing for a draw over two days on a sticky wicket at Headingly.

As a guy who regularly whacks himself in the face with an iPad when dozing off in bed, I sort of understand. And yet I wonder if Josephine is doing it wrong. She's right about being trained into gorging ourselves on handfuls of M&M-like snippets of text and audio and social media updates and blogs and grumpy cat and link bait lists and whatever and ever amen. You do have to stay in the habit of reading stories longer than 300 words. That's what I'm contracted to write for Fairfax at Blunty. 300 words a blog. I frequently go longer than that, of course, because I'm a windbag. But all of our data, all of everybody's data, points inexorably towards the fact that, yes, Homo modernus has a very short attention span.

Why then would you take a difficult piece of literature into your soft warm bed at the end of a long and difficult day? You're almost certainly setting yourself up to fail. There are two issues here. One, being tired, stressed, overworked and generally too warn out to stay awake for more than a few minutes. Literature is not going to help with that. And secondly, literature.

None of the books Josephine cited struck me as being much fun to read. You might enjoy them the same way that you might enjoy the challenge of bench pressing your own body weight, but that's more of an existential satisfaction than a pleasurable one.

I still read in bed, but after suffering from the same distractions and a few I discovered all on my own, such as news aggregators like Flipboard and Zite, I now have a policy of reading either one short to medium length article from something middle to high brow like The New Yorker, or a couple of chapters from one of my unrivaled collection of books that improve with altitude.

The thinky stuff I read because I enjoy it, but not too much of it, and usually not late at night. To return to the weightlifting metaphor, it helps to give your brain a bit of a workout every now and then. But mostly at the end of the day I just want to relax and if I'm reading that means I'll be reading something like Steve Stirling's latest alternate history novel of the Change. (The Given Sacrifice, since you ask, and yes it is awesome). Thrillers, action adventure stories, fantasy, SF, all of the genres that don't get no respect at literary festivals, they all produce the sorts of books that are likely to find you cursing the author at four in the morning because you just have to keep turning the pages.

Nobody has to keep turning the pages of literary fiction unless you have a term paper due the next morning.

The other issue, of course, is simply a lack of time. The reason so many of us read in bed is that we don't have the time to do it during the day. There is that brief and shining moment in your 20s when, particularly if you are a layabout student, you do have endless days and months to lie around consuming book after book. But those days are over for me, and I suspect they are over for Josephine Tovey as well.

I've 'read' many more books this year than I have in recent years, however, simply by subscribing to Even though I work from home, I find these days that I'm a commuter more often than not, or a taxi driver perhaps, ferrying kids from one commitment to another. I spend a surprising amount of time behind the wheel, enough to let me stream hours of music, listen to hours of podcasts, and still get through one or two long audiobooks a month. I never listen to audiobooks in bed because that would be a bit perverse. I can't explain why. Just shut up you.

But in the car, walking the dog, hanging out at endless, endless, endless school sporting functions, they are a godsend. And they don't even need to be thrillers. Right now, just to prove that I can, I'm making my way through Hillary Mantel's huge, thinky, dense and difficult Wolf Hall. It's brilliant, visionary, almost hallucinatory in its evocation of Thomas Cromwell's point of view and I read it, or rather listen to it, with a grinding envy for all the talent this woman has to spare.

But it's weightlifting. Really difficult weightlifting. I feel better for having done it. It's good for me. But I enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy a really hard workout. It's only fun when it stops hurting. And I would never, ever attempt it in bed.

36 Responses to ‘Doing less of the things you do in bed’

peteb ducks in to say...

Posted September 6, 2013

windbag more like word bag, which is a good thing for some, carry on ..

Respond to this comment

Lulu ducks in to say...

Posted September 6, 2013

A wise person* once said there are only two things you should do in bed and one of them is sleeping. I tend to agree, mainly because my preferred reading position (for light or serious matter) is on the couch.

(Virginia Trioli, who might have been quoting someone else)

BigWillieStyle swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 6, 2013

Farting's the other one, yeah?

Respond to this thread

BigWillieStyle reckons...

Posted September 6, 2013

"As a guy who regularly whacks himself....when dozing off in bed"

Sorry, what?

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted September 6, 2013

I hestitate to admit that made me LOL, but it made me LOL.

Respond to this thread

Respond to this comment

Darth Greybeard ducks in to say...

Posted September 6, 2013

So-called "experts" (see how I'm getting into the post-Saturday zeitgeist?) claim that reading in bed can cause sleeping problems. I say that I'll stop reading in bed when they prise the book/reader from my cold dead hands. Or my wife gets narky.

Respond to this comment

w from brisbane swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 6, 2013

JB, you cover it very well.
I can read, and often do, 4 books a week. But I have the advantage of insomnia, the reader's friend.

But, tips for reading

  • Read what you enjoy. Don't worry if you never read War and Peace.
  • Carry a book with you as part of your standard equipment. This is pretty easy with e-readers.
  • Audio books are great, particularly if you spend a lot of time travelling.

Respond to this comment

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted September 6, 2013

Humans have exactly the attention span, patience and memory required for survival.

Respond to this comment

NBlob mutters...

Posted September 6, 2013

Nice one JB, some premium multi factorial thinky.

I have an earphone screwed into my left ear 7+ hours per day. I barely listen to music anymore, %95 Podcasts. The constant stream of thinky is um is.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->AWSM - A parade of experts, practitioners, artisans / craftsmen and academics, selected by their ability to communicate and an interesting story to tell, produced by professionals who edit & craft into coherent stories.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->FKD – 4 or 5 times a day I have to say “I’m sorry would you please say that again” as I pop the earphone out.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->AWSM for the hours of tedium now fixed with interesting and thought provoking.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->FKD – I recognise, but can’t get past my own selection bias. All Radiolab, SE2KB & Science Show, but no new episodes of Pig Guttin’ Weekly or Crystal & Rainbow Unicorns.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->AWSM – There is thousands of hours, possibly tens of thousands of hours.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->FKD – There is so much available, I’ve downloaded, but not really started SpartaCast.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->· <!--[endif]-->AWSM – It gets me away from commercial Classic Sh!ts & Memories Radio that is the default in my line of work. (I hate the digital compressor technology that is used to change “Buy some curtains” to “BUY SOME FKN CURTAINS!!!”) It could be worse, in a previous job I went from client to client who almost all listened to Messers Laws or Jones.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->FKD – My earphone sh!ts SWMBO, I can p!iss her off just by walking through a room. She says it excludes her when I chuckle or say "No Sh!t" without context.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·<!--[endif]-->AWSM- It starts conversations worth having. My work partner & I were overheard discussing Ex Egyptian President Morsi & the Super Fun Cats in the Muslim Brotherhood. A passing pedestrian bailed us up & congratulated us for not discussing Footy or Fish we’d killed.

I cant imagine what will happen to my brain when I start into Audiobooks.

NBlob has opinions thus...

Posted September 6, 2013

OK, so don't import bullet points from word

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted September 6, 2013

Ha. No. Don't do that.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan asserts...

Posted September 6, 2013

When I didn't know it was a mistake, I liked it. Very avant garde.

Respond to this thread

Murphy swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 6, 2013

I can't blame technology. I was a notoriously impatient and fickle reader before it all came along. These days, if I am going to invest hours in reading a book, I like to make sure I'm actually going to enjoy the journey.

If not, I'll drop it like a hot rock.

And for the love of God, so many books these days are poorly written, socially aware, mastrubatory pieces of politically bloviating bullshit. I absolutely hate being preached at, especially by a fucking moron who is working way outside their field.

So I don't feel particularly bad about my reduced consumption. Besides, I have enough reading I have to do for my teaching position to keep me busy.



On the Outer Marches

Respond to this comment

Barnesm ducks in to say...

Posted September 6, 2013

A great thinky piece for the Cheeseburger, perhaps a tad long?

My only quibble is the comment "Homo modernus has a very short attention span". I disagree. This hypothesis is usually linked with ideas such as the google effect which was first given credence by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow's 'Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips' abstract published in Science in 2011. This lead to a spate of articles around the Google Effect and how it was making us dumber, reducing our focus, shortening our attention spans.

Fortunately the forces of light and reason rallied and pointed out that this tendency to not recall facts which can be easily obtained is, as simply put by National Public radio’s Aval Noe in the excellent rebuttal 'Google is NOT making you stupider'

"the Google effect is merely the latest expression of a cognitive strategy that is almost as certainly as ancient as our species"

and while we bemoan the decline of thinky reading, as covered by the editor’s at McSweeny’s Internet Tendencies summarised in Some Good News from the World of Books.

“Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. Library membership and circulation is at all-time high

Admittedly the new on demand nature of book buy can through up some curious effects, like when the Snowden’s story emerged around the NSA spying and PRISM and sales of George Orwell's 1984 increased by 80%.

Also consider the range of think works no put up as blogs, in the realm of long form science writing I am spoilt for choice each night reading the works of Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and Maryn McKenna with her Superbug blog, and Orac a American surgical oncologist who is incapable of writing anything in a short form especially when it comes to handing the smack down on the nonsense that is Complementary Allied Medicine. To argue that people aren't reading thinky stuff you merely have to look at some of the discussions in the comments. I realise the comments that follow these pieces often support the claim by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post

"I basically like "comments," though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots".

Not youtube comments of course I mean places like science blogs, wired, NPR, etc..

Also the internet has seem the rise of some long form writing projects which we might have feared had disappeared with the fall of magazines. One I am enjoying is Matter specializing in long-form articles about science, technology, medicine and the environment.

The fall of the thinky- nonsense, for me it is a golden age. I read these for an hour or two each night before bed after the_weapon goes to sleep.

Lulu is gonna tell you...

Posted September 6, 2013

“Book sales are up, way up, from twenty years ago. Young adult readership is far wider and deeper than ever before. ”

Hmm, yeah, but - how much of that is 50 Shades & Twilight (& probably 50 Jamie Oliver cookbooks)? Much as I love Jamie, I don't think any of those three count as thinky.

w from brisbane has opinions thus...

Posted September 6, 2013

Lulu, I think it is the ease of access to ebooks that is driving increases in book sales. Particularly, the new experience of reading a book you like and then having immediate access to the author's whole back catalogue.

As author Steve Stirling commented on the Burger in June.

S.M. Stirling puts forth...
Posted June 29

Yup. My royalties used to be derisory. They've gotten to be six-figure serious, and it's being overwhelmingly driven by ebooks.

They alter buying patterns, especially in genre(*). People read one book, and then go out and buy the entire series. Sometimes everything the author has ever done.

(*) apart from the particular genre known as "literary".

Respond to this thread

tqft puts forth...

Posted September 6, 2013
I am taking angels of vengeance with me on the plane tonight and leaving Internet cconnection in darwin.
Even though tumblr is a bored travelers good friend

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted September 6, 2013

You are my new favorite.

tqft asserts...

Posted September 6, 2013
I won't be when you find out what I plan to do with it when I finish it. Hint I got $11 for the last 3 wheel of time books=2 beers

Respond to this thread

w from brisbane would have you know...

Posted September 6, 2013

On a related matter, what are people reading at the moment? Any recommendations?

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted September 6, 2013

I'm reading Stirling's latest, but that's a draft MS. It should be out very very soon, however.

I'm listening to Wolf Hall. Because it's good for me. Like getting fibre is good for me.

NBlob mumbles...

Posted September 6, 2013

And thus the term brain-fibre was born.

w from brisbane ducks in to say...

Posted September 6, 2013

This week I have read 'Magician's End', the last book of Raymond E. Feist 30 book Magician series. He knows how to mine a good thing. An enjoyable romp; heaps of magic, an abundance of elves, there were even dragons. All things loved (not) by the average Burger reader.

Also the biography of Edwina Mountbatten. An interesting slice of 20th century history. She was wildly and gluttonously promiscuous, a close friend to many including Nehru, and a war hero. Very interesting.

Current book, July. July by Tim O'Brien. O'Brien is possibly the great Vietnam War author (The Things They Carried, Going after Cacciato, etc) This is different. A book about the 30th reunion of Minnesota's Darton Hall College class of 69. The reunion and devolving into their back stories, marriages, hopes achieved and gone rotten etc ttc. Focussing mainly on the women. Moving and funny, it is everything I normally run a million miles from, but it is very readable and, of course, very well written.

Dick swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 6, 2013

Just finished 12-21 by Dustin Thomas. Cross between doomsday bug (think mad cow disease) and end of the world due to end of Mayan long cycle calendar, hence the title. OK, but don't know that I'd recommend it.

Peter in the bleaches mutters...

Posted September 6, 2013

Just had Stirling's latest arrive from Book Depository yesterday. I imagine it won't hit the shelves (where you can get it) for at least 6 months. But that is another story.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan asserts...

Posted September 7, 2013

Hit the shelves here last Tuesday.

Respond to this thread

NBlob would have you know...

Posted September 6, 2013

W, check out the Brigadiers link salad above. Next Draft can usually suck 45 minutes to an hour out of my day If I let it. So much sweet sweet thinkaliscous. So little time.

w from brisbane has opinions thus...

Posted September 6, 2013

I've been looking at the Brigadier's links. "Next Draft" I haven't seen that before. Though I am trying to spend less time on the internet.

Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 6, 2013

Next Draft is an excellent link.

Respond to this thread

Anthony has opinions thus...

Posted September 6, 2013

I've started a book I found recently - Kate Marsden's 1892 piece of late-Vctorian God-bothering On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers.

I only bought it for the title - you just can't resist a title like that when you find it. I've actually found myself getting interested. She's one of those determined doughty memsahibs that the poms seemed to throw up from time t time.

Otherwise I'm reading 1635:Papal Stakes, one of Eric Flint's Ring of Fire series.

JB - please tell the good Mr Stirling to hurry up his publishers.

Respond to this comment

Blake is gonna tell you...

Posted September 6, 2013

My SWMBO noticed the other day that my reading rate has gone ballistic lately.

I put it downt to two things:

1) Momentum. Forcing myself out of my comfort zone to read the bookclub books here means that i'm actively looking for stuff to read in the slack period between books. Usually I run straight back to my comfort zone but that's ok because at least i'm getting through the bookshelf of bookfest books i never started.

2) I broke my iphone. Without facebook/twitter and feedly pumping blogs and news to me in my downtime waiting for trains and in the evening I'm actually getting back into books.

Respond to this comment

Rob would have you know...

Posted September 6, 2013

I read Ken Follets winter of the world last week, and book one the few days before that. But I did take most of the week off on holidays. But its taken me to give up the computer (and faffbook) to read long novels again. Analogue is good for the long inviting tea time of the soul.

Respond to this comment

she_jedi has opinions thus...

Posted September 7, 2013

I've always been a voracious reader, and the rise of e-books has meant that instead of waking up some time in the night with my book gently laid over my nose I end up smacking myself in the forehead with my iPad. Not only does that shit hurt, it's a brutal way to drag yourself back to consciousness after reading yourself to sleep. JB you have my sympathies on this articular problem, although I was glad to realise I'm not the only one that does this.

I'm currently reading Charles Stross' Traders War series, the refined and republished version, after it got a mention on the Burger, and I'm mad about it. I've been trolling iBooks and Amazon in search of his back catalogue as he's one of my new favourites now.

The thing I like most about ebooks is the instant access to back catalogues you can get; in the ye olde days of bookstores you were lucky if the big chains stocked more than one or two of your favourite authors books, much less their series, and while the smaller specialised bookstores had a greater chance of having the titles you were after, frequently you had to get them ordered in. And good luck trying to find an author's older, out of print books. The relative ease and cost effectiveness of producing ebooks means that a lot of older books of established authors are now not only available, but available at the click of a button, filling two niches - the desire to read EVERYTHING an author has published, and the impulse of BUT I WANT IT NOW! I've forgotten how many books I've wanted to read but given up trying to find because it was just too hard to track them down, now I've got a lot of them on the fondle slab in order to save my precious analogue books from disintergrating with re-reading.

LIke many of us on the Burger I've found my book collection splitting into titles that are ebooks only, and esteemed titles that get read on the iPad but are also shelf worthy. I vaguely recall reading an article years ago discussing the threat that ebooks represented to traditional book markets. The author of the piece argued that the mass market paperback was the format that would suffer, but hardcovers were likely to have a renaissance for this very reason; people would have titles they want to keep in pristine condition on the shelf while they did their reading in ebook format.

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted September 7, 2013

I have forwarded your comment to Mr Stross. You may now squee.

she_jedi asserts...

Posted September 7, 2013


Respond to this thread

Respond to 'Doing less of the things you do in bed'

Follow along with RSS