When I was younger my grandmother made me a little bag. Roughly the size and shape of half an A4 page, it has no zips, no cover, and nothing particularly remarkable about it. Every day I wore it to school beneath my blazer, for it was perfect for slipping books into, and this indeed had been its purpose. My grandmother sewed it for me when my blazer pocket became too small to hold the thickening books I was disappearing behind.
Somehow, way back then, I read nearly a book every week. When I think about this now I feel a pang of dismayed envy and shake my fist at my younger self. A book a week! If only! I remember how, although only a humble little black pouch, the little bag was a comfort to me, for I knew that at any time I could slip away into that other world that it carried around for me in the pages of a paperback.
Now however, things are different. Out of necessity, one tells oneself, reading habits change. In the often frantic and distracted climate of modern society – with meetings and timetables, and deadlines and appointments – it can be daunting to sit down to do anything that requires even a short amount of stillness and silence. One has barely finished filling in the latest form before more paperwork and letters arrive at the doorstep. Pride in a finished assignment lasts only a few fleeting moments before one must turn to the next deadline. And on top of all of this the celery needs to be cooked, for it is malting in the fridge….Then you’d better go buy some more groceries for that was the only thing left. Finding an hour to read can seem like a foolish indulgence when there are more immediately pressing matters to think about.
In one of their many brilliant endeavours, Alain De Botton and the School of Life have written a book entitled The Book of Life. In The Importance of Staring out the Window they capture nicely the point I am trying to make about reading;
The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It’s easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There’s a huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. It is shy and doesn’t emerge under the pressure of direct questioning. If we do it right, staring out the window offers a way for us to listen out for the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves.
In another blog post I wrote about the value of having somewhere private and silent, somewhere slightly removed from the world where one has the space to properly examine one’s thoughts. It is possible that I am merely repeating the same idea here, but it seems to me to be connected to the frequently heard lament that ‘nobody reads much anymore’. This is untrue, and overly simplified, but it is nonetheless undeniable that reading habits have changed. The paperback is a not a relic by any means, but articles such as this one – where commuters in Cluj-Napoca, Romania were rewarded with a free bus ride if they were reading a book – reveal an anxiety around the move away from paper and into the digital realm.
People are still reading, but arguably shorter articles, blog posts, and items online that flicker interestingly into focus and then threaten to be lost if not read quickly contain a certain appeal to those who are daunted by the comparative size of a book, or by a lack of time to settle comfortably and read. (I am aware of the irony here). Last year I remember one of my history professors mentioning that he doesn’t watch television because by the time he has finished reading all the interesting articles that pop up on Facebook, it will be at least midnight.
This, I suspect, is likely to do with at least three things: changing attention spans, the appeal of new technology, and the sheer amount of information available instantly at any given moment on the internet. Perhaps the appeal of the digital medium is partly in how it so accurately reflects the character of the modern world. The digital world moves quickly, and acts like a window out onto the rest of the world. If it is not watched carefully it may soon slide closed and become stuck. And then we would miss out on a lot of interesting and important things.
For me this is both the appeal and the thing that is unappealing about reading something of a more manageable length online rather than that old volume that has been accumulating dust on the mantle. But unlike online articles, books force one to slow down. There are no pop-up ads or multiple pages splitting one’s attention into far too many horcruxes to be able to appreciate one fully. And sometimes this can be great, when we can keep up with it. At other times, however, the pace of new information can become overwhelming.
I myself am extremely guilty of this trend. When so many things are happening around me it seems more practical, more prudent and time-wise to pick out the most important or interesting articles to read off my phone rather than pick up that four hundred page book about Mexico and disappear into the backyard with it. Short articles can seem more accessible when one has – or when one thinks one has – little time. I have arrived at the point now where I have amassed a secret cache of word documents and pieces of paper scattered on my desk, embarrassingly entitled things like ‘Links Saved From the Internet. Definitely Must Read!!’ More embarrassing still, my most frequent email contact has now become myself, with emails entitled such things as ‘DEFINITELY READ THIS ONE. INTERESTING LINK’ clogging up my mailbox. I have actually turned into one of those scam emailers that everybody learns to ignore.
Even well-established news sites however, are guilty of encouraging this fractured consciousness and broken attention-span. While perusing the news items of the day one is sometimes given an estimate about how long an article should take to read:
What does this overwhelming amount of information, what do all the articles that we won’t ever have enough time to read, tell us? At least two things. That there is a lot happening out there, and how are we supposed to keep up if we’re switched off, somewhere removed and disconnected? In the words of the School of Life, there is no glamour or high status to activities like staring vacantly at the plants – activities which, for centuries have been ‘condemned and denigrated by moralists, teachers, employers, parents – and our own guilty consciences.’ That is how you miss out on stuff, Frodo Baggins.
It would be madness to admit that occasionally, on the way back from a busy day at work when we find ourselves passing a hardware store, we will wander inside and, eyes cast down towards the floor, we will rush past the pluming section and straight over to the nursery, where we will stroll amongst the quiet ferns and citrus trees and secretly imagine running away to the mountains, or perhaps an orange farm somewhere. It would be folly to propose that once there, we will pass our days in blissful contentment, free of the overcrowded news feed, and the savage voice of our own consciences telling us there is something more productive we could be doing.
It is needless to share any of this because the foolishness and naivety of this plan will soon dawn on us, as we hurry back past the drills and chainsaws, past the nail guns and rakes, and the gadgetry of the well-adjusted modern house. It is folly to dream of such unrealistic peace, we tell ourselves as we hurry towards the tills, with our single tomato plant clutched dearly in our hands. No one need know that this modest tomato plant will be the first in a magnificent garden we will create upon our balcony or in our backyard, into which we will be able to escape quietly every now and then. Because the mops and buckets in aisle two are reprimanding us as we stand in the queue waiting to pay: don’t you remember that the drain needs fixing?
Perhaps I am just being old fashioned, but for me, reading a paper book rather than something online is practise in a certain kind of focus that I would like to regain. Whatever the appeal of the shorter article the sheer amount and visibility of them all at once can be an off-putting exercise in frustration rather than a useful experience. By removing oneself from the swelling ocean of online material and in focusing on only one book in front of you, one sharpens that ability to focus which is so often shattered into a hundred pieces during even the briefest venture on the smart phone.
I do not mean to say that reading paper books is unquestionably better than reading online – I enjoy both and see immense value in both. After all, the Japanese in their wisdom invented a word that is sadly lacking a counterpart in the English language and that contradicts this. ‘Tsundoku’ refers to the act of buying books and not reading them, and allowing them to accumulate. This to my regret, has become the permanent state of my bedroom, like that of my email.
It however, needn’t be only a frustrating thing. Collecting books – or collecting ideas, dreams, plans that one intends to refer to one day – is aspirational at the very least. Perhaps if nothing more can be said, there is at least that. Books and interesting articles pile up not only because there is often little time to read, but because the excitement at the idea of reading them, of learning something new, outruns our ability keep up with the enormous amount of information out there. I am suggesting rather, that when one feels ones’ focus beginning to split, when there are too many things online that you wish to read but can’t – that it is then perhaps time to pick up a book, focus on one thing only and hold that one thing in your hands. Flip through the pages and make sure nothing is going to pop up and distract you. Then you can disappear for a while, and come back with a new focus.
Ideally, this should be done in a shady glade, or if one lives close to the city and has limited space, among the leaves of the tomato patch.