Objects of concentration in an era of distraction

Johann Hari describes a new phenomenon. Does it sound familiar to you?

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.

Hari laments the loss of the book as also heralding the loss of our ability to pay attention to what’s in it, and of how dangerous that can be.

… the function that the book – the paper book that doesn’t beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As Ulin puts it: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction…. It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”

A book has a different relationship to time than a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now. The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says “the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy.”

I’m glad we’ve begun to pick up on this weird new sensation that there’s always something more compelling or important than a book. (Though given the range of distractions over the years, perhaps it’s just a more frenetic version of an old problem.) It’s something I’ve noted within myself in my own reading habits, and have been bothered by, but didn’t quite know how to manage.

Simple Internet-blocking tools like Freedom, Leechblock, and StayFocusd (so focused it doesn’t have time for all the vowels) have emerged as a way to help minimize wasted hours online. And, of course, you can always just turn it off and walk away, which requires no special software but the willpower to make it happen.

h/t Arts & Letters Daily

Category : The Lead
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2 Comments
  1. Frcraig

    I don’t have trouble reading, but find that I consume so much content on the net that I skim everything, even scripture. Can’t seem to just focus and read…

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  2. Ah, this hits home. I’ve just returned from a two-week vacation in a place where I had basically no internet access (a big deal for this blogger) and I read three books–on my Kindle. I purchased it for this trip and beyond because a trusted friend said he was able to read without distractions and hold many books in a small package (the Kindle doesn’t have web-surfing abilities).

    As a lover of all things pen and paper (and a former student of book binding and hand typesetting) I came to the Kindle kicking and screaming. But I can’t argue with its simplicity–words on a page. That combined with a hiatus from all other things digital–including a cell phone–allowed me to devour three books like I haven’t done since grad school.

    The test for me is to see if I can continue to read so voraciously now that I’m back home surrounded by digital distractions as well as work and community responsibilities. I hope I can figure it out because the time spent reading was more soul-feeding than anything else I’ve done since my last retreat.

    Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Syracuse

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