Reading in the Internet Age

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on June 25, 2011

Johann Hari is my brother from another mother:

In the 20th century, all the nightmare-novels of the future imagined that books would be burnt. In the 21st century, our dystopias imagine a world where books are forgotten. To pluck just one, Gary Steynghart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story describes a world where everybody is obsessed with their electronic Apparat – an even more omnivorous i-Phone with a flickering stream of shopping and reality shows and porn – and have somehow come to believe that the few remaining unread paper books let off a rank smell. The book on the book, it suggests, is closing.

I have been thinking about this because I recently moved flat, which for me meant boxing and heaving several Everests of books, accumulated obsessively since I was a kid. Ask me to throw away a book, and I begin shaking like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and insist that I just couldn’t bear to part company with it, no matter how unlikely it is I will ever read (say) a 1,000-page biography of little-known Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar. As I stacked my books high, and watched my friends get buried in landslides of novels or avalanches of polemics, it struck me that this scene might be incomprehensible a generation from now. Yes, a few specialists still haul their vinyl collections from house to house, but the rest of us have migrated happily to MP3s, and regard such people as slightly odd. Does it matter? What was really lost?

The book – the physical paper book – is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 per cent this year alone. It’s being chewed by the e-book. It’s being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all. It’s hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books.

In his gorgeous little book The Lost Art of Reading – Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, the critic David Ulin admits to a strange feeling. All his life, he had taken reading as for granted as eating – but then, a few years ago, he “became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read”. He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind was wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. “What I’m struggling with,” he writes, “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention.”

I think most of us have this sense today, if we are honest. If you read a book with your laptop thrumming on the other side of the room, it can be like trying to read in the middle of a party, where everyone is shouting to each other. To read, you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words. That’s getting harder to find.

No, don’t misunderstand me. I adore the web, and they will have to wrench my Twitter feed from my cold dead hands. This isn’t going to turn into an antedeluvian rant against the glories of our wired world. But there’s a reason why that word – “wired” – means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate”.

When I crack a book open and start reading, I find myself absorbed by the book, and enjoy the sensation. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to checking e-mail and/or Twitter on my Android every once in a while during train rides/reading sessions. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to empathizing with Hari’s need to disconnect from the wired world in order to enjoy the pleasures of a book uninterrupted. And Hari is entirely right in stating that the proper response to the distractions oftentimes provided by the Internet is to seek even more fervently and insistently the peace, solitude, and intellectual stimulation offered by books.

A word on Kindles, and the like: They can be quite useful for those who do not have the shelf space to possess all of the books that they would like to have. They can be useful for those who want to try a book out at a reduced e-book price, and then perhaps purchase the dead-tree version in the event that they find they like what they are reading (the decline of libraries perhaps serves to make the presence of the e-book as a sort of literary test drive vehicle all the more necessary). But if e-books become like iPhones, Androids, and computers–capable of doing a lot more than merely providing reading material–then, as Hari notes, they no longer are aids to reading. Rather, they are threats to reading.

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