Google announced last week it would be closing the much beloved Google Reader web feed aggregator. Its users had been dwindling for a few years, as online reading migrated to the social web, to Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Google Reader has become a virtual leaf in the wind, revealing the steady passing of a particular form of reading online. As the social web becomes increasingly dominant, the experience of reading in a sort of "virtual solitude"—without the distractions, flash, opinions, interpersonal tensions, reactions, judgments, peer pressures, and hurry of the social web—will become a much rarer one.
It is hard to regard this as anything but a loss. Google Reader offered web readers a private space online, a form much more conducive to attentive, contemplative, and independent thought than the frenetic rush, impatience, and emotional reactivity of much of the rest of the Internet. The social web seldom affords us the time, space, and silence that we need for reflection. While other services will take Google Reader's place, the departure of a player of Google's stature indicates the change occurring in the online ecosystem.
The closing of Google Reader is merely one of many ways in which forms of reading, the nature of texts, and the relationships that exist between the two rapidly change in the contemporary world. Although these changes are constant and occurring at an unprecedented rate, we are seldom disoriented by them, nor do we often appreciate how much has really altered in a brief span of time.
Occasionally something awakens us to the scale of the changes that we are living through. For me, a recent article by Julian Baggini, in which he describes burning an old set of the Encyclopædia Britannica, provided one such moment. Its ponderous volumes, once familiar symbols of the body of human knowledge, have been rendered obsolete, practically replaced by online sources such as Wikipedia. An authoritative physical and published source, representing a consensus of an academic elite, has given way to the virtual and protean network of Wikipedia entries, where the once-sharp contours of human knowledge disappear and entries on the subject of Hegelian philosophy rub shoulders with those on Nyan Cat.
Both the passing of the hard-bound Encyclopædia Britannica and of Google Reader represent milestones in the digital age. They remind us that reading and our engagement with texts aren't static realities, but quite changeable. New technologies make possible new ways of reading, but also call for discernment. While new contexts, media, and gadgets can powerfully serve both reader and text, there are many occasions when our reading can benefit from limits.
Today's web pushes us to read more, click more, share more, and comment more, but there's something comforting about less. As readers, we may also seek out a form that's slower, quieter, simpler, and less distracting. Neither nostalgic resistance to new technologies nor wholesale and uncritical adoption of them is the answer, but rather a prudent and discerning understanding of the nature of our particular texts, our appropriate relationships to them, and the tools that facilitate those relationships.
This wise mindfulness is especially necessary for readers of the Scriptures, texts which require and invite forms of reading and engagement that do not come so naturally to us. Our habits as modern readers have been forged in a world with a myriad texts vying for our attention. Modern texts are written and produced for such a world, as are their formats and our reading habits, tools, and technologies. Ancient readers would struggle to understand our valorization of speed-reading, for instance. Few of them could even read silently: texts were typically read orally in groups or alone in a muffled voice. In Space Between Worlds: The Origins of Silent Reading, Paul Saenger observes that the way that texts were written had to change before silent and faster reading could become mainstream.