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Thoughts about Distraction

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore provoked in me some thoughts about books and the industry at large. E-books would no doubt become the predominant medium by which we read, whether we like it or not. They might hurt the independent bookstores in the short run like chain stores putting the small guys out of business. But as e-books become available through indies, books from independent presses that big chains often overlook would be made available to readers. What really kills books is not the platform by which we access the books. It’s the continually changing social psyche. In other words, I’m not talking about the textile pleasure of turning the pages and holding the book. That’s a whole different issue. Technology seamlessly mimics the reading experience but it doesn’t change the feeling of the reading experience. So if I’m talking about missing the smell of books and the feel of holding a book, it’s a matter of nostalgia.

What kills books/reading is largely on our short attention span and distraction. In a society poised for instant notifications of our friends’ doing, for obsessively updating social media, for quick consumerism, books are at grossly disadvantage because of the long delay factor. We no longer read newspaper. We abandon the stories for headlines. We skim for what we find important. We look for the pertinent information. Who has time to read a book from cover-to-cover? How often are we distracted by social media and instant messages when we try to get some reading done? This is the reason I’m so defensive of my private reading time, knowing I could get carried away by texting.

6 Responses

  1. This makes me think of an essay I read in my English I course, but I don’t remember who wrote it. You basically just said the same thing he wrote. It’s true sadly, while reading a book or even typing up a blog post, my attention span shifts onto other things on the internet. In order not to distract myself from reading I often have to listen to instrumental music like a movie soundtrack or post-rock or something to immerse myself in reading, I have to turn off my computer and put it away.

  2. The advance of the telegraph caused a huge cultural shift. The foreign correspondents could no longer take in the entire battle – or period of unrest or natural disaster – and then write a measured, comprehensive, thoughtful report to send back to their newspapers. Readers now wanted the information immediately, piecemeal, raw. Something valuable was lost — time for thought, reflection, a broader view, perspective, a chance to correct earlier mistakes, misperceptions. By the time those long thought pieces could be written, the public was onto the next crisis. Sound familiar? But of course the telegraph brought with it enormous, undeniable benefits — there was no going back, however nostalgic people might have been for the ‘way it used to be’.

    There’s a terrific little book by Don Gifford called The Farther Shore: The Natural History of Perception, 1798-1984. I treasure that book, return to it again and again — it always seems to speak to the moment. I think it has a lot to say about the issues you raise, Matthew.

  3. You raise a good point Matt. I’m only just getting back into serious reading after what seems like years off – and my attention span has definitely suffered in the interim. I’m finding I need to be quite disciplined in making time for uninterrupted reading.

    PS I digya blog. I’m taking some of your reviews on board in putting together my ‘to read’ list.

  4. Very insightful post. As a reader who loves both paper AND electrons, I get upset when people demand that we choose one over the other, when the REAL problem could be much deeper (and much more insidious). Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!

  5. “I’m so defensive of my private reading time, knowing I could get carried away by texting.”

    I’m not just defensive, I get cagey and aggressive.

  6. Absolutely – this affects us all. One has to work very hard in today’s world to keep a longer attention span, and to avoid distractions.

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