How to survive the age of distraction

Johann Hari writes:

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”.

In the age of the internet, physical paper books are a technology we need more, not less. In the 1950s, the novelist Herman Hesse wrote: “The more the need for entertainment and mainstream education can be met by new inventions, the more the book will recover its dignity and authority. We have not yet quite reached the point where young competitors, such as radio, cinema, etc, have taken over the functions from the book it can’t afford to lose.”

We have now reached that point. And here’s 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.”

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1 thought on “How to survive the age of distraction

  1. Christopher Hoare

    Everything said here about the book also applies to the e-book. Except for attempts to somehow merge the linearity of story to the random distractions of a computer game, a fiction or non-fiction e-book also promotes the activity of deep linear concentration.

    But Hari’s linear causality in equating all e-books with distraction is perhaps an indication of some underlying illogic in his argument. Chaos theory, systems theory, and fuzzy logic all point out that linear causality is only a special case within the spectrum of mutual causality that underpins reality. To know the whole world we should know this, too.

    There is a vital place in our lives for exercising our deep linear concentration, and we can find this in the linearity of story and reasoned argument in books—both electronic and dead-tree—but the world of chaos, of random interactions, of dependent co-arising needs to be understood as well. Take your books to a quiet place because such still exist in the real world, if not in the urban illusion catered to by TV, movies, and the twitter-world. Have the power of mind to close them out when you need to, because they only feed on our weaknesses.

    If nowhere else you can always read in the bath—if you read an e-book and enclose your e-reader in a strong ziploc bag.

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