When I was younger, my grandmother made me a little bag. Roughly half the size of 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: 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, I tell myself that reading habits change. In the frantic and distracted climate of the city – with meetings and timetables, 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 letters arrive at the doorstep. Pride in a finished assignment lasts only a few fleeting moments before one must turn towards the next deadline. And on top of all of this, the celery needs to be cooked, for it is wilting in the fridge. Then, you’d better go buy some groceries, for the celery was the only thing left. Finding an hour to read can seem like an indulgence when there are more 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 the point I am trying to make:
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 there is space to properly examine your thoughts. I may be merely repeating the same idea here, but it seems to me to be connected to the often-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 it is arguably shorter articles, blog posts and online items that flicker interestingly into focus and then risk becoming lost if not read quickly that 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 – this is a blog after all). Last year, I remember one of my history professors mentioning that he no longer watches television because by the time he has finished reading all the interesting articles that pop up in his Facebook feed, it is usually at least midnight.
This, I suspect, is 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.
Books, despite being often categorised as relics, force one to slow down. There are no pop-up ads or multiple tabs splitting your attention into too many horcruxes that prevent you from being able to appreciate one fully. Don’t get me wrong, when you stumble across something fascinating in a dusty corner of the internet, something weird and never-heard-of, this can be great. At other times though, 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 a few articles to read off my phone instead of picking up that three-hundred-page book about Mexico and disappearing into the backyard with it. Short articles can seem more accessible when 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 around my desk, embarrassingly titled things like ‘Links Saved From the Internet. Definitely Must Read!!’ More embarrassing still, my most frequent email contact has now become myself, with emails titled such things as ‘DEFINITELY READ THIS ONE. INTERESTING LINK’ clogging up my mailbox. I have actually turned into one of those scam emailers everybody learns to ignore.
Even well-established news sites 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 of 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 that, 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 plumbing section and straight over to the nursery, where we will stroll among 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 home. It is folly to dream of such unrealistic peace, we tell ourselves as we hurry towards the tills, with our single tomato plant clutched tightly in our hands. No one need know that this modest tomato plant will be the first in a magnificent garden that 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 physical book rather than something online is practise in a certain kind of focus that I would like to regain. By removing yourself, from time to time, from the swelling ocean of online material and focusing on only one book in front of you, you sharpen that ability to focus that can be shattered into a hundred pieces during even the briefest venture online.
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 English that contradicts this idea: ‘tsundoku’ refers to the act of buying books and not reading them, allowing them to accumulate instead. This, to my regret, has become the permanent state of my bedroom, like that of my email.
This, 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. I am suggesting, rather, that when you feel your focus beginning to split, when there are too many things online that you wish to read but can’t – is then perhaps time to pick up a book and flip through the pages.
Ideally, this should be done in a shady glade, or if you live close to the city and have limited space, among the leaves of a tomato patch.