In an e-distracted age, why we'll keep coming back to printed books
All day yesterday, Sunday, I looked forward to getting everything done so I could have a couple of hours in the evening to read. Then those two hours came, and I spent almost all of them online. The book I wanted to start — Roland Smith’s YA thriller Zach’s Lie — lay unopened by me on the couch.
Okay, I had a competing interest, a type of music that’s intriguing me, so I was on YouTube and doing CD searches and wasn’t just doing brain-scatter surfing, of which, like everyone these days, I also do too much. But I kept on glancing at the book, knowing I’d looked forward to it all day. And then, when I did pick up Zach’s Lie at almost bedtime, I got vacuumed into the story, which kicks in fast — and stayed up late reading it, wishing I had time to read more.
We all know the easy seduction of the Internet, how whole evenings can vanish the way they used to watching TV, with nothing gained but an empty sense of lost time. And we're going to keep losing hours this way — but we will also, I'm convinced, keep on finding there's something uniquely absorbing and rewarding about reading. I mean long-form reading, in print. With books that we open, and hold, and engage with in a way that's not quite like anything else we do.
And even with all the current chatter about ebooks, I’m convinced that they too will settle into a meaningful but minor slot in our media library. Over time we’ll discover that we’re still reading actual, printed books — that they never did die or disappear. We may realize, or else we'll just take it for granted, that the connection and satisfaction we get from reading in print, at length, will never be replaced by scattered surfing.
This morning I woke up to a New York Times article that points to the reason why. Sure, ebooks are hot sellers — “the number of adults in the United States who owned tablets and e-readers nearly doubled from mid-December to early January,” reports the piece in the Business Day section — but their owners are often discovering that trying to read on the iPad or the Kindle turns out to be yet another spell of disrupted and interrupted attention.
“A tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks,” the Times reports. “... That adds up to a reading experience that is more like a 21st century cacaphony than a traditional solitary activity.”
Exactly. Here's an example: the reporter found a 21-year-old college student in North Carolina who bought an iPad, but hasn’t much enjoyed reading on it. The only time she’s been able to focus on a book undistracted — by the ease of checking email, the constant temptation to zip over to the Web — was on a plane flight, when she couldn’t get the Internet.
The temptation that riddles our lives today is to divide and keep dividing our attention, to lose time lurching all over our connected world in fragmented, unsatisfying ways. But the thing is: this is unsatisfying. And it’s for this deep reason that reading books in print will not only survive — it will continue to be the most rewarding everyday way we can engage with created media. (Well, along with music. And there's another example: even though we can now zip all over, finding new and diverse recordings, we still want to, need to, stop and settle and listen.)
Movies didn’t replace reading books, nor did radio or television. And I think it’s exactly because living with the Net and electronic reading so scatters us that we will keep coming back to books, and to the libraries ... those that survive ... where we can find them.
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