by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Alright, let’s cut right to the chase. This column is not about airbags. Or underpants. That was just a sneaky way of getting you to start reading. The longer I write ... the more familiar people become with my writing ... the harder that gets.
If you’ve read this column before—or my opinions—you’re used to being disappointed by me, so the fact I lied to you in the title is probably not a deal-breaker. Besides, it helps make my point.
Here’s my point: We are evolving past reading. We are so spoiled by visuals and sound bytes and electronic ephemera that we are losing the patience it takes to read things. Unless somebody promises us sex or novelty or some kind of endorphinal gusher, we aren’t willing to devote the time to reading it.
“Out of my way—I need to get to YouTube.”
“Hold on. Airbags in underpants! That may be worth thirty seconds; let’s take a look.”
“Oops, no it’s just Bedsworth ... probably not worth the time.”
“Wait a minute; he’s admitting he lied about something; maybe I should check this out.”
“No, it’s about reading. B-o-r-i-n-g. The guy’s a walking talking Ambien.”
“Wait, I see the word sex. And what in hell does endorphinal mean?1 Maybe I’ll give him another paragraph.”
This is how it goes, now. Words have to compete with pictures. And pictures are so much faster and easier.
The new journalism says “hits” are more important than accuracy or content. If people go to your web page and see the advertising—regardless of what rubbish you’re providing as content—you’re a success.
This is, of course, good news for content-challenged people like me. But I wonder what its long-term effect on society will be.
I had a case awhile back in which three businessmen running multi-million dollar companies tried to accomplish a merger on a napkin. They’d gotten so used to instant information and HOV lane business practices that they thought nothing of trying to plot the future of their financial empire on something considerably smaller than a sheet of notebook paper. And they thought they could do it in the time it would take to compose a tweet.
It did not turn out well. And the appeal that followed meant I had to summon up the patience to read 120 pages of briefing.
I don’t think the parties could have made themselves read 120 pages of anything. And briefing can be a tough slog. But it’s easier for me if I just remember Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
That’s right: the Disney characters.
I was lucky enough to have parents who were willing to let me read anything—as long as I read. So while Mom was reading me Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer and Swiss Family Robinson whenever she could get me to sit still, on my own time I was reading Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge and Gyro Gearloose. I figure reading briefs is just payback for all the time I got to spend with Donald’s nephews. Literary karma.
But other people apparently don’t think this way.2
Consider your last mortgage. Did you or did you not have this experience: A nice person showed up at your home with a stack of papers slightly smaller than Vermont. She made it clear she had four other appointments that evening and said something like, “I’m sure you’ve done this before; it won’t take long.” Then she somehow mesmerized you into signing your name forty-three times onto documents involving hundreds of thousands of dollars and—for all you know because you DID NOT READ THEM—the forfeiture of your citizenship.
I’ve re-financed several times. I now have a really good interest rate, but for all I know, the house belongs to Taylor Swift and I’ve agreed to take part in the clinical study of some drug that killed almost all the lab mice.
And I am a legally trained professional. I’ve spent my life in a business that would not exist if human beings were as trustworthy as wolves and snakes. I, of all people, should know you have to read this stuff.
But I’m busy. And if I don’t hurry, I might miss the dancing kittens my cousin Monty just posted on Facebook.3
A British Internet security company recently conducted an experiment. They set up free mobile hotspots in cafes near the financial district and Parliament. You could get free wireless access if you just checked the box saying you agreed to the terms. People agreed to the terms.
The terms included a clearly labeled “Herod Clause,” under which the user agreed, in exchange for the free wireless, to give up his or her firstborn child.
“As this is an experiment, we will be returning the children to their parents,” said the tech security firm that ran the experiment.
The security firm wanted to make the point that people are not sufficiently security-conscious about their Internet usage. They’ll blindly sign up for anything that connects them to the net.
Point well taken. But I see it a little differently.4
I see it as an indication that our collective patience has become so atrophied that we not only aren’t reading Christopher Marlowe and Stephen Crane. We not only aren’t reading the financial section (too complicated) or the arts and leisure section (too highbrow). We aren’t reading anything.
If we aren’t reading our mortgages and our contracts, if we aren’t reading the forms we sign in the emergency room or the insurance policies on our cars, if we aren’t reading the napkins on which we write out our mergers ... what in hell are we reading?
I am a little better than most. Just a little. I still read some things.5 And I owe it to Gary Pettyjohn.
Here’s why. In the eighth grade, Mrs. Pritchard passed out a four-page test. She said it was designed to test our ability to follow directions. By the eighth grade, I had conquered every test known to man.6 This was something new, and I was champing at the bit.
I dove into it. I was on question four before half the class had signed their names. I knew if I was to beat out Maureen McCafferty and Bernice Liebig7 I had to move fast.
The test was tricky. It was full of directions like, “Circle every ‘e’ in this sentence; put a square around the other vowels.” And, “Go back to instruction 12 and circle every word that shows up in that instruction that is also in this one.” And, on page 3, “Write the word ‘Done’ at the end of Instruction 1.”
I was zooming. I was confident I would have my paper turned in before anyone else.
Unfortunately, I had “zoomed” through Instruction 1, which said, “Read all the instructions before you begin.” The last instruction, on Page 4, said something like, “Put your pen down and do nothing. Ignore all the other instructions.”
Gary Pettyjohn was sitting at his desk next to me with his hands folded in his lap. He had read all the instructions before beginning.
Gary was a nice kid. He wasn’t Bernice Liebig8 smart, but he was no dummy. And when someone told him to read everything before beginning, he did so. I haven’t seen Gary in fifty years, but I’ll bet he knows who owns his house.
Folks, we need to slow down and read more.
Start with the newspaper. Then move on to Robert B. Parker and Michael Connelly. You may not get to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, but you may be able to get a better deal on your homeowner’s insurance or even end your Internet browsing with the same number of children you started with.
And you may not buy underpants with airbags in them.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.