October 27, 2009



I think there is some truth to this, as we are being more and more socialized into ADD-type messaging and social networking experiences. It would be interesting to compare whether the same problem is occurring with, say, movies, another experience that requires steady attention over a long period of time. Yet that doesn't seem to be happening.

Almost certainly unrelated, but ironic nevertheless: It seems that we are seeing more and more mammoth novels in the marketplace, like 2666, Sacred Games, Imperial, almost any Harry Potter instalment. What does this mean, coming at a time when these types of novels are supposedly becoming more and more impossible to read?

If you want to start reading again, start a book group. That's what I did. It's remarkably how your reading instinct is reactivated when you have to show up somewhere and have something interesting to say to others about a book.


“The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it. One who does not actually know, in his own life, the nature of this breakthrough and this awakening to a new level of reality cannot help being misled by most of the things that are said about it. For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization.“

-Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation


That sounds like a perfect description of Twitter to me, JW.


I feel much the same way, especially now that I have an iPhone. Even in bed, I can check e-mail and Google Reader. My job requires me to travel a lot, and I am thankful for the time on planes when there is nothing to distract me from a book. (I fear the day they start providing Internet access on planes.) However, even with all the distractions and entertainment choices, I do still enjoy throwing myself into a fat book, knowing I will be swimming in it for a long time. Paradoxically, my Kindle, which might have proved an abetter to my ADD, allowed me to read Clarissa this year without having to physically lug that behemoth around with me.

Oh, and if "Proust at last" means you have never read Proust, you are in for a profound treat. Nothing can clear away all those distractions like Proust.


Yes, read, before all else read. Most everything else can wait. I've often felt that the appelation "Twitter" names the very state of mind or condition of soul that the medium spawns, namely, a "twit," as in an insignificant nincompoop, or "a-twitter," as in agitated or flustered heart, or "twittering," as in tittering idly about nothing at all or as in frittering, blittering, or dithering, because their sound says something about the utter lack of sense that compasses us all. Anyhow, read read read...

Ele Munjeli

There is a certain amount of elitism here to suggest it's so much more worthwhile to be laboring at literature than answering a letter to my mother via email. Before we bemoan reading as a lost art, we might consider the boon to literacy afforded by a dominantly text based information system. When people ask how I manage to read so many books, I often comment that the fluency of my reading is the result of long practice: I have always been a reader. Nowadays, I think more people read more, and it is the result of web and chat technologies. As the new technology, web gets the rap, but the real issue may be eye strain, or exhaustion.

Like Niall, I am inspired to read because I have socialized my habit, in part through websites like Goodreads and other online book clubs. I tend to think of these criticisms about email and ADD as a newer version of the dread ailment 'bicycle face', a fear that the powerful winds encountered by speedy riders would distort their visage permanently. Needless worry. Get a good nights sleep, and tackle one really good book.

Andrew Ross

Roth said it best: The moving image/screen owns all and will kill books in less than 25 years. Unfortunately younger generations do not read (literary fiction).


I'm not religious but I found that having a sort of digital sabbath helps. Which means we turn off the router on Sundays or Saturdays (depending on scheduled engagements) and then have to do something else. We don't own a TV (shows are watched on laptop) which means we end up reading. Or taking walks leaving cellphones behind.

I don't think it's luddism. I love the internet and there's hardly a day when I haven't learned some interesting fact through it. It's much more a solution to our lack of self restraint that means that if the internet is on we hardly ever pick up a book or take breaks to refresh twitter between chapters. This way we are actually able to finish medium sized literary fiction books in one long sitting (with lunch break). The following day we blog about it which is still a better way to make ourselves reflect about what we read than tweeting...

Paul Lamb

All true, but also inevitable. This is our universe now, and we must find ways to read and reflect within it. Like all unwelcome things, it is not as bad as it seems, and it will evolve. Furthermore, it is nothing new. It is our new. I remember reading accounts of the intrusion the telephone meant in the households of the Edwardian Age. We will cope.


I've had a blackberry for one year now, and I've noticed a drastic slide in my ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. I don't think we're talking about elitism here (how it's so much more important to read a book than email your mother), but about how we're watching our brains change in ways we don't feel good about, ways that don't foster study, memorization, and sustained attention. If you begin to check your phone every ten minutes, then you actually train your brain to break concentration every ten minutes, regardless of whether you wish to check your phone or not. It's pure conditioned response. And it sucks. I'm thinking about getting rid of my phone.

Donnie Wahlberg

the poet brandon scott gorrell articulates this anxiety beautifully in his book of poems, During My Nervous Breakdown I Want to Have a Biographer Present.

John Verity

This diagram -


- may be relevant. Pointed out, recently, by Harper's website.

Also, check out Ivan Illich's book, In the Vineyard of the Text, which argues that the ways of reading are not fixed, that they have changed radically on occasion, particularly under the influence of new tools, including that most important one, the alphabet. Illich looks specifically at a 12th century guide for monks about how to read out loud and savor each word as a sweet morsel of God's wisdom. Soon, as alphabetization, footnotes, indices, spaces between words, and other modern typographic aids took hold, the text was abstracted from the page and reading became the silent activity that we have long taken for granted. Also, the book became a root metaphor - the Book of Life, etc. And now, as the screen encroaches, Illich sees another, similar chasm opening up, the other side of which remains just as unknowable to us as the past era of orality.


I'm a librarian, so I spend most of my working day scanning online information. But I'm still a voracious reader of print books, and I've found that the "digital sabbath idea" mentioned above works for me. I am fortunate to have a job that usually lets me unplug on weekday evenings and weekends, and I take advantage of that time to read. Also, I have an ancient, basic cell phone that does absolutely nothing but make and receive phone calls and texts.


For me, it boils down to making a choice about what I read. Twenty plus years ago I noticed I wasn't reading as many books as I had been; instead, I realized, I was reading lots of magazines (Atlantic, New Yorker, New Republic, etc.) So for the most part I cut those out as part of the regular rotation -- knowing that I would miss out on interesting writing. Same thing with Internet. My job requires me to be very current on lots of issues and always available on email. But when I have a choice of what I can read, I choose what I hope are decent books. Plus newspapers in the morning.


John Verity makes a good point by way of Ivan Illich. But we can point to a more recent, and more radical, shift in reading modes. Until the 20th century most reading was out loud, in public. People were in the habit of being *read to* by those who were literate. This occurred in the workplace, at home, in public places, etc. We forget that reading used to be a very public and social act. The withdrawal of reading in to the silence of personal privacy is a development of the 20th century, and represented a radical privatization of knowledge and literary experience. Much as the experience of listening to music has become a muffled, private affair between a person and her iPod.

So I think we'll survive the Twitterdaemmerung. At least it represents the return of writing/reading as a public and social experience.

Jack Pendarvis

I never realized how much Preston Sturges resembles David Lynch!


Very fun fact about Preston Sturges: Did you know his mother was one of Aleister Crowley's mistresses? Tru dat.


Don, as you did some twenty years ago, I am now finding myself absorbed by magazines (and pretty much the same you mention) at the expense of books. Part of this is my graduate school requirements -- but secretly it terrifies me. Must I give them up to get back to my novels?

Oy vey.


Not sure if you've posted this yet, but Philip Roth, in an article over at the Guardian UK, says this limited focus will be the thing that makes the novel a "cultic" minority enthusiasm within the next 25 years. "I think always people will be reading them (novels) but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range," he said.

As for me, I'm getting a new office this week -- and it won't be wired. I'll check email in the morning and evening. At least, that's the plan.

Preston Sturges, by the way, a true genius. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. I need to see that one again.

Full Roth article:


Ele @6:
Your first sentence about elitism doesn't seem to go with the rest of your comment. Just something you had to get off your chest?

Isn't it just as "elitist" to assume everyone has e-mail to use with their mother? (Books are cheaper than computers.)

Does "elitist" mean anything at all other than "I resent you for suggesting I should do or become something I don't want to"?

I think when people use "Luddite" as a bad word, even while claiming they're not one themselves, it reinforces everyone's (everyone in the US's?) assumption that all technological change is good and we should never resist it or even try to manage it. Is that really a reasonable assumption? Counterexamples do come to mind... I think the Luddites were fighting quite a good fight, actually. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite)

Michael Antman

For the past four years or so, I've been struggling with chronic tension headaches, which are almost entirely the result of the excessive number of hours I spend in front of a computer, either in pursuit of my own writing career or at work, where I'm a V.P. of marketing communications for a financial services corporation. When I sit down with a book or magazine, however, the pain almost instantly begins to disappear. I suspect there's a simple mechanical or ergonomic explanation for this, relating to my posture in front of the screen relative to my posture while reading a book, or it may have something to do with the screen's refresh rate, or my glasses, etc. Either way, I interpret it as my body trying to tell me something, so I listen. And read.

In a much broader sense, I fear that Philip Roth is correct, but am not entirely convinced that he is. Everything goes through cycles -- and it may be that as other people experience their own Internet-induced headaches, whether actual or metaphorical, they'll spend a little more time in the pursuit of contemplative reading, but it'll take a few more years, as the novelty of some of these (admittedly wondrous) new electronic devices begins to pall a bit.

One last point: On my way to work every day, I ride a commuter train. I would say the number of people who are reading books and magazines on the one hand, and on their Blackberries, IPhones and cellphones on the other, is approximately equal. The people using their electronic devices often have furrowed brows and worried expressions; those reading a book invariably look relaxed. Make of that what you will.

David Gordon

I have noticed this dismaying habit in myself, but I don't blame the internet. In fact, I find that the kind of distraction the internet offers is better suited to siphoning off time when I should be working, like right now. Still, since most items I find on-line, (no offense) require only five or ten minutes to digest, they are ideal procrastination material vs. deep reading, which would eat a whole afternoon.

More dismayingly, I blame my lack of concentration on life itself. In my younger days I devoured huge, complex novels as if they were popcorn. I read Proust multiple times, Joyce, Pynchon, Gaddis, Broch, etc. Now, as I try to tackle Henry James, I find that though I love it, I want to stop and take a break every few pages, check my email or even nap. Is it age? Brain damage? The hyper-culture? Or just the stress of grown-up life? I any case it is ironic: It was in my youth that I was best suited to reading and thinking deeply. Now I'm a silly kid.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."