This week I reminded my students that if they are serious about getting a good job in writing or communications then they need to get serious about their media consumption. That means: a daily newspaper with an international focus, a weekly news magazine, and two to three high-quality monthly magazines. ‘But that doesn’t require you to read everything cover-to-cover’, I assured 22 horrified faces. Rather, a good media consumption strategy gives you the framework to dip in and out of the most important events in the world, and allows you to feel connected to ideas bigger than yourself. During interviews for the jobs that students with an English Studies degree will go into–marketing, journalism, PR, publishing, teaching, to name merely a few–the question of ‘how do you consume your media?’ is becoming an increasingly common starting point. And the response needs to be a bit more developed than ‘oh, I read Heat every Tuesday.’
It is advice that I give to students every year, but with the recent announcement that later this summer Google will be dropping Google Reader–their pleasingly functional and well-connected RSS reading platform–I began to think once again about how I consume my media. I will be the first to admit that my methods of media consumption have been, until recently, what might be called… shady. I’m of the generation of Napster and torrents, after all. I’m part of the first generation of people who had computers in their bedrooms as children, paving the way for a bit of illegal downloading beginning with the era of Sugar Ray and Savage Garden and moving onward. When a good friend of mine introduced me to the world of illegal .epub files for my Kindle, I was hooked. But putting aside all the economic and moral arguments against illegal file sharing–and I do have a profound respect for musicians and writers, and believe they are owed fair compensation for their work–I have my own personal reasons for recently taking my media consumption more seriously. And by that, I mean, exchanging cold, hard (digital) cash for the pleasure of consuming.
Part of this reason is an accident of geography. I was recently speaking to a distinguished colleague of mine, who, like me, also spent a bit of time teaching at Birkbeck, University of London. ‘8 out of 10 people on the Tube will always be reading a novel or magazine’, we fondly remembered. The visibility of readership in London sends some important messages to students in the capital, including, most significantly: this is a place where the public display of reading is valued and accepted, nay demanded of responsible citizens. But the famous readerly culture of London is an anomaly, not the norm. In Hong Kong, where I currently live, there is a strong literary culture but not a readerly one. The Man Asian Literary Prize gala was hosted at the famous Peninsula hotel this week overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, and there is an impressive tradition of novelists and poets writing within and about this most remarkable of cities. But the fact remains that it is a place where reading for pleasure is neither a visible element of culture, nor one supported by what 8 out of 10 people will likely be doing on the MTR during their morning commute. Students must sometimes be reminded that reading is pleasure and that it is an important thing to do even when one isn’t faced with an assignment.
And it is for this reason that this year my annual reminder of ‘1 newspaper, 1 news magazine, 2-3 monthly magazines‘ seemed to take on a very different tone. The look of horror on my students’ faces let me see the situation a little bit better from their perspective. The consumption of media is not–as I had seen it to be for a number of years–a throw-away accepted standard, a joyless, passionless exercise in picking the brains of those more interesting than you find yourself to be. Rather, it’s quite a remarkable and singular thing, something that everyone, from time to time, needs to be reminded to do and to enjoy. Illegally downloading a book, an album, or a film, however, makes that media into a cheap, disposable commodity. It doesn’t set the proper tone for the experience, nor engender the aura of authenticity (thinking back to, but also thinking beyond, Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 essay on the mechanical reproduction of art) that is so necessary for fully appreciating the work in your hands.
On Wednesday night I spoke briefly with the Japanese novelist Hiromi Kawakami, whose book The Briefcase was shortlisted for this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize. I was struck by her suggestion that books are like faces, and that an important part of readership is walking into a bookstore with no goal in mind and finding out which ‘face’ speaks to you most. Finding a new book you love is like finding a new boyfriend or girlfriend she suggested, and I couldn’t agree more. I bought The Briefcase, Kawakami signed it for me in beautiful kanji script, and I look forward to spending a leisurely Sunday morning reading it in bed with a pot of coffee and toast. That is how I like to consume my media.