Books as antidote to short attention spans
Today in the New York Times, Timothy Egan wrote a piece bemoaning the increasingly short attention span of us modern humans. In his article, he went on to boast that he had “found a pair of antidotes, very old school, for [our] shrinking attention span[s].” One was gardening. The other was reading.
The second [antidote] is deep reading, especially in the hibernation months of winter…Remember all those predictions that technology was going to kill book reading? It never happened. Paper books and stores that sell them are experiencing a revival of sorts. So, yes, I’m as screen-scrolly as the next guy when I’ve got the world in the palm of my hand. But put the thing aside, and…curl up with an 800-page tome, and you find that the desire for sustained concentration is not lost. If anything, it’s greater.
Of course, my bibliophilic heart swelled in pleasure at his conclusion. Reading as savior! Saving us from modern distraction and lack of focus! Books as antidotes to contemporary malaise! How wonderful!
Over the last decade or so, the evolving debate about e-readers, the death of books, the fall of bookstores, and how technology is always somehow ruining society has been interesting for me to watch and participate in. Over the course of said debate, I went from a staunch Kindle hater (a dislike based solely on loyalty to physical books back when e-readers and physical books were somehow viewed as an either/or proposition) to a grudging Kindle owner to someone who could appreciate the pros and cons of both e-readers and physical books. Could physical books come with me on a two-month backpacking trip? No. But could my Kindle ever replicate the pleasurable physical experience of a codex? Also no. They’re two different tools and I accordingly use them as such.
Timothy Egan’s piece today made me think about this old debate once more. Egan doesn’t recommend reading of any old kind — Kindle, book, Nook, or otherwise. He recommends reading a physical book. His argument is predicated on paying close attention (“deep reading”) to a big, old fashioned book (“an 800-page tome”). That sort of physically present type of reading will hold your attention and save you from having a shorter attention span than a goldfish, Egan suggests.
This is a fascinating proposition and one which made me think more seriously about what my reading is like when I’m reading a book vs. when I’m reading an e-book. I’ve written before about how much I miss books when I only have access to e-books, but I never really thought about how my reading changes based on how I’m accessing the text.
And, the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Egan: reading that I did on a screen was quick and prone to jumping around and, in general, less focused. When I finished books on my Kindle, they didn’t leave as lasting an impression and I didn’t think about them very much. Reading that I did with a physical book in hand, meanwhile, was more frequently transportive. I was in the book, gone, far away, and deeply immersed. I thought about what I was reading and didn’t skip around.
Of course, there are other factors (like the distraction of travel, which is when I use my Kindle most and would logically allow for less immersive reading in general), but my experience with the two types of reading and Egan’s article made me think a bit more deeply about reading formats and habits. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if reading were such an attention span saver? And, if it is, does it have to be via a physical book?
I’d love to hear about your experiences with e-readers vs. physical books and how using either has changed (or not changed) your reading experience. (And perhaps your attention span!) Chime in below!