The Work of Reading in the Age of Technological Distractability

Corey Robin confesses that he rides the subway for hours in order to be able to focus on reading. I have to confess that I once tried it, getting on a Brown Line train in Chicago that would take me around the Loop and back home again with no effort on my part — and it didn’t work. I couldn’t focus. I learned then that what made me so much better at reading on public transit was the fact that I was “redeeming” time that would otherwise be wasted.

Over the years, another trend has emerged in my train reading: there are certain types of texts that I can seemingly only read on public transit. Secondary sources, course texts that I’m not excited about, articles I’ve agreed to review — anything that I have difficulty motivating myself to read, I can nonetheless get myself to read if I take advantage of the “redeeming time” effect on public transit.

This is all well and good during the school year, when I have long commutes most days. During the summer, however, it begins to present problems. I travel much less frequently, and in any case, whether I’m working on writing or translating, I very strongly prefer to work at home — I’m not sure if I’ve ever written a usable word in a coffee shop. Sometimes I try going to a public place to read in order to take advantage of the ambient “social pressure” to look busy. There’s only so much coffee I can reasonably drink in a day, though, so I often prefer to go to a bar instead. This strategy obviously has its own potential downsides, but there are also times when the presence of someone who seems to want to talk to me can produce remarkable focus and discipline.

I’m not sure that the presence of the internet is the decisive factor in my difficulty with reading. If I’m reading something really compelling, I don’t really care who’s criticizing me on Twitter. In fact, sometimes it seems like the problem is that I take too much trouble to separate myself from the internet. Often when I’m reading at home, I go to the living room, which is at the whole other end of the house from the office where my computer is. If I get the urge to “check,” I have to get up and go to the office, and there’s always the danger that I’ll find a half hour has passed.

If I just let myself check my phone to confirm that nothing was really demanding my attention, maybe I’d be better able to focus — in fact, maybe I’d be able to simulate the ambient distraction of public transit, where I can always look up from my book and see who got on the train, or which stop we’re at, or who just started yelling. In short, perhaps my problem with reading isn’t distraction as such, but putting excessive pressure on myself to focus.

But in any case, I don’t read as much as I’d like, and I’m sure none of us do. Or do you? What do you think, dear reader?

4 thoughts on “The Work of Reading in the Age of Technological Distractability

  1. I find the challenge of having a phone handy while reading is that it enables not just procrastination, but meta-procrastination. Instead of truly procrastinating by switching to a different activity, perhaps even something ‘fun’, I defer the decision to procrastinate and instead read ephemeral news updates or articles that consist entirely of lists. On the one hand, it’s easier to get back on task when the distraction is so unsatisfying; on the other hand, the desire for a real distraction also remains unfulfilled. But I’ve never thought about how tendencies to (meta-)procrastination relate to the type of text – food for thought.

  2. I think I benefit from a similar mode of ‘meta-procrastination’, but my method of choice is just drinking a lot of water. Taking a sip constitutes a short break; going to the bathroom a slightly longer one. It feels healthy, it defers the need to procrastinate, and it provides an opportunity to refocus thoughts more than it proffers an actual distraction.

  3. An ongoing curiosity for me is whether anyone has sustained a pattern of reading while walking that has made any sense. I walk to work as opposed to biking so I can think (reading seems useless) but then if at all possible I do pastoral visits or meetings by bus (as opposed to drive; Winnipeg is sprawled and pretty car-centric) so that I can ‘redeem’ that time with reading.

  4. Reading is essentially what everyone does on the Internet. That said books are indeed hit hard in this ‘attention’ economy. They exude timesink the way a few stapled pages of printed text could never do.

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