How We Read

Tim Parks offers this depressingly familiar description of what it’s like to read today.

“Every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for. Already by the late 1990s, translating on computer with frequent connections (back then through a dial-up modem) to check email, I realized that I was doing most of my reading on my two or three weekly train commutes to Milan, two hours there, two hours back. Later, with better laptop batteries and the advent of mobile Internet connections, that space too was threatened. The mind, or at least my mind, is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others.

“We all know this. Some have greater resistance, some less. Only yesterday a smart young Ph.D. student told me his supreme goal was to keep himself from checking his email more than once an hour, though he doubted he would achieve such iron discipline in the near future. At present it was more like every five to ten minutes. So when we read there are more breaks, ever more frequent stops and restarts, more input from elsewhere, fewer refuges where the mind can settle. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption. Hence more and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book, particularly something long and complex.”

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