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Reading and the Encroaching Buzz

Last night, I finished a book. Not a particularly momentous occasion, you might think—and certainly not worth celebrating online. But it was significant to me for the simple reason that  I haven’t been doing much of this lately. Finishing books, that is. I’m very good at starting books—I must have fifteen or so on the go at any given moment—but lately I’ve noticed that making it to the last page is an increasingly rare occurrence.

There are a variety of reasons for this, no doubt. Life is busy—the kids have sports and piano, and there are meetings to attend, friends and family to see, a new job to continue learning, sermons and reports to write, etc, etc. This is unexceptional, I know. Busyness is ubiquitous. The feeling that there are never enough hours in the day to do what I want is hardly unique to me.

But increasingly, I am discovering that it is not busyness alone that accounts for the change in my reading habits. Increasingly, I fear, I am succumbing to the fragmented existence promoted by our online world. Oases throughout the day that were once used to steal a few pages/chapters from a book are now spent online. There are blogs to catch up on, soccer scores to check, news headlines to scan, email to check (again), status updates to peruse, comments to respond to, and—oh look, someone has a new post up, and Barcelona has scored a goal, and there are three unopened emails, and a comment on the blog, and… On and on it goes.

I’ve read enough books, articles, blog posts, studies, etc to know that my experience is in no way uncommon. Every week, it seems, a new article comes (ironically) through my online reader bewailing the internet’s detrimental effects upon attention spans or the lost productivity that comes with online distraction at work. The ways in which are brains are being rewired and remapped by technology is as hot a topic as any these days, but understanding a problem is a very different thing than addressing it. Addressing the problem, it seems to me, requires a different set of disciplines, a different kind of wisdom and practice than simply analyzing our brains on the internet and recommending a few behavioural modifications. But that’s probably another post for another time….

Perhaps you are curious as to the subject matter of the book I heroically finished last night? Ironically enough, it was David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading. His words resonated with me on so many levels, so I’ll simply leave off with a few passages from his book:

And yet, this, I think, is something on which we can agree: to read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a landscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to illumination, that it is more important to react than to think deeply, that something much be attached to every bit of time…

These days, after spending hours on the computer, I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my email, drift onto the internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t, force myself to remain still, to follow what I’m reading until I give myself over to the flow. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.

And, citing the work of David Levy, a professor at the Information School at University of Washington:

[We need to think of a kind of] “informational environmentalism,” in which, “just as we fight to save marshlands and old-growth forests from development and pollution… so we need to fight to save ourselves from the ‘pollutants’ of communications overload; the overabundance of information that turns us into triagers and managers rather than readers; the proliferation of bad or useless or ersatz information; the forces that push us to process quickly rather than thoughtfully.” If we ignore such an imperative, “we risk becoming cut off from the world, rather than more connected; less able to make wise decisions, rather than better-informed; and, in the end, less human.”

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ernie #

    Over a phonecall visit with my brother last night, he told me how he was not on facebook and would not succumb to the mindless chatter that goes on there….this after I mentioned to him how much his grandchildren had grown – from the pictures I saw on (you guessed it) facebook

    it’s all about picking priorities…it’s that simple! if only I would listen to them more (Ha)

    November 12, 2011
    • Larry S #

      and now I can read books via a devise that also gives instant access to the Internet (e-mail, Facebook etc.). I agree with Ernie – it’s about priorities and I think like your post trying to stay focussed.

      it’s not all bad – my 82 year old mother tracks the lives of her grandchildren/greatgrandchildren via Facebook. and law enforcement tracks the relational web of young punk gangsters via Facebook.

      November 13, 2011
    • Yes, it is about priorities… but I’m not sure it’s simple :). If the neuroscience folks are correct, and our usage of the internet is literally rewiring our brains, then it’s not always as easy as just deciding and proceeding upon rationally chosen priorities. Some studies have noticed similarities between the brain states of heavy internet users and that of cocaine addicts. Just like substance abuse, over-reliance leads to addiction and the experience of losing control of choices, etc.

      Having said that, I of course acknowledge the benefits of technology that both of you cite here. There’s no going back to the dark ages, and I wouldn’t want to. Like all tools, we have to learn how to use the internet well. Too often, I fear it is our tools using us rather than us using our tools.

      November 13, 2011
  2. Tanya Duerksen #

    Thanks for the challenge Ryan. At least I felt challenged after reading it. Although it saves me so much time if you just read the book and I get to read your summaries. I guess it’s time to get off your Blog and go read a book; right after I check facebook…


    P.S. I had to look up “ubiquitous”. I am glad you’re my friend.

    November 12, 2011
  3. Your post here reminded me of a blog post I read a couple of years ago by a woman who had to read Middlemarch for a book group, but in order to finish the book she had to practically fast from technology, becoming a kind of ascetic for a while.

    I am tempted to get The Lost Art of Reading for my Kindle, but sadly there are already too many unfinished books on my Kindle. Perhaps I should work on one of them.

    November 24, 2011
    • Do unfinished books on Kindle have the same capacity to mock and shame that a stack of real unfinished books does? Just wondering… :).

      November 24, 2011
  4. If you store your unfinished books in your Kindle archives, the mocking and shaming grows so faint you can hardly hear it anymore.

    BTW, one advantage my plain Kindle has over the new Kindle Fire is simplicity and focus. I can only use it for reading, not for checking e-mail or dinking on the Internet, which as you point out gobbles up a lot of time. Maybe recovering the lost art of reading involves sacrifice of the less important in favor of the perennial.

    November 24, 2011
    • Maybe recovering the lost art of reading involves sacrifice of the less important in favor of the perennial.

      Undoubtedly it does.

      November 25, 2011

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