Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction

Johan Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Laesende lille pige, 1900

“I read books to read myself,” Sven Birkerts wrote in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts’s book, which turns twenty-five this year, is composed of fifteen essays on reading, the self, the convergence of the two, and the ways both are threatened by the encroachment of modern technology. As the culture around him underwent the sea change of the internet’s arrival, Birkerts feared that qualities long safeguarded and elevated by print were in danger of erosion: among them privacy, the valuation of individual consciousness, and an awareness of history—not merely the facts of it, but a sense of its continuity, of our place among the centuries and cosmos. “Literature holds meaning not as a content that can be abstracted and summarized, but as experience,” he wrote. “It is a participatory arena. Through the process of reading we slip out of our customary time orientation, marked by distractedness and surficiality, into the realm of duration.”

Writing in 1994, Birkerts worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The “duration state” we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived. The diminishment of literature—of sustained reading, of writing as the product of a single focused mind—would diminish the self in turn, rendering us less and less able to grasp both the breadth of our world and the depth of our own consciousness. For Birkerts, as for many a reader, the thought of such a loss devastates. So while he could imagine this bleak near-future, he (mostly) resisted the masochistic urge to envision it too concretely, focusing instead on the present, in which—for a little while longer, at least—he reads, and he writes. His collection, despite its title, resembles less an elegy for literature than an attempt to stave off its death: by writing eloquently about his own reading life and electronic resistance, Birkerts reminds us that such a life is worthwhile, desirable, and, most importantly, still possible. In the face of what we stand to lose, he privileges what we might yet gain.

A quarter of a century later, did he—did we—manage to salvage the wreck? Or have Birkerts’s worst fears come to pass? It’s hard to tell from the numbers. More independent bookstores are opening than closing, and sales of print books are up—but authors’ earnings are down. Fewer Americans read for pleasure than they once did. A major house’s editor-driven imprint was shuttered recently, while the serialized storytelling app Wattpad announced its intention to publish books chosen by algorithms, foregoing the need for editors altogether. Some of the changes Birkerts saw on the horizon—the invention of e-books, for one, and the possibilities of hypertext—have turned out to be less consequential than anticipated, but others have proven dire; the easy, addictive distractions of the screen swallow our hours whole.

And perhaps the greatest danger posed to literature is not any newfangled technology or whiz-bang rearrangement of our synapses, but plain old human greed in its latest, greatest iteration: an online retailer incorporated in the same year The Gutenberg Elegies was published. In the last twenty-five years, Amazon has gorged on late capitalism’s values of ease and cheapness, threatening to monopolize not only the book world, but the world-world. In the face of such an insidious, omnivorous menace—not merely the tech giant, but the culture that created and sustains it—I find it difficult to disentangle my own fear about the future of books from my fear about the futures of small-town economies, of American democracy, of the earth and its rising seas.

“Ten, fifteen years from now the world will be nothing like what we remember, nothing much like what we experience now,” Birkerts wrote. “We will be swimming in impulses and data—the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse.” Indeed, few of us have refused them. As each new technology, from smartphones to voice-activated home assistants, becomes normalized faster and faster, our ability to refuse it lessens. The choice presented in The Gutenberg Elegies, between embrace and skepticism, hardly seems like a choice anymore: the new generation is born swaddled in the digital world’s many arms.

I am both part and not part of this new generation. I was born in 1988, two years before the development of HTML. I didn’t have a computer at home until middle school, didn’t have a cell phone until I was eighteen. I remember the pained beeping of a dial-up connection, if only faintly. Facebook launched as I finished up high school, and Twitter as I entered college. The golden hours of my childhood aligned perfectly with the fading light of a pre-internet world; I know intimately that such a world existed, and had its advantages.

Birkerts, recalling the power books held over him when he was young, writes, “Through reading and living I have gradually made myself proof against total ravishment by authors. Yet so vivid are my recollections of that urgency, that sense of consequence, that I foolishly keep looking for it to happen again.” The heightened state brought on by a book—in which one is “actively present at every moment, scripting and constructing”—is what readers seek, Birkerts argues: “They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.” This state is threatened by the ever-sprawling internet—can the book’s promise of deeper presence entice us away from the instant gratification of likes and shares?

“[Y]ears of working in bookstores have convinced me that this fundamental condition is there for others as well,” Birkerts writes; as a young man, he worked for a then-independent Ann Arbor bookshop called Borders. Four decades later, I slung books at Literati Bookstore, a few blocks away. The shelves of the original Borders had been bought and repurposed by Literati’s owners to hold the new store’s fiction section, and the people browsing them were the same, too: that is, they had the same tilt to their heads as they scanned titles, the same hopeful reach in their fingers as they pulled a volume down, flipping through the first few pages.

And if they occasionally wanted books modeled after the internet—gift books born on Tumblr, Instagram printed out and bound—they also wanted Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. They wanted Teju Cole’s Open City, Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.

Birkerts’s argument (and mine) isn’t that books alleviate loneliness, either: to claim a goal shared by every last app and website is to lose the fight for literature before it starts. No, the power of art—and many books are, still, art, not entertainment—lies in the way it turns us inward and outward, all at once. The communion we seek, scanning titles or turning pages, is not with others—not even the others, living or long dead, who wrote the words we read—but with ourselves. Our finest capacities, too easily forgotten.

Early in The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts summarizes historian Rolf Engelsing’s definition of reading “intensively” as the common practice of most readers before the nineteenth century, when books, which were scarce and expensive, were often read aloud and many times over. As reading materials—not just books, but newspapers, magazines, and ephemera—proliferated, more recent centuries saw the rise of reading “extensively”: we read these materials once, often quickly, and move on. Birkerts coins his own terms: the deep, devotional practice of “vertical” reading has been supplanted by “horizontal” reading, skimming along the surface. This shift has only accelerated dizzyingly in the time since Engelsing wrote in 1974, since Birkerts wrote in 1994, and since I wrote, yesterday, the paragraph above.

Horizontal reading rules the day. What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it. Reading—real reading, the kind Birkerts makes his impassioned case for—draws on our vertical sensibility, however latent, and “where it does not assume depth, it creates it.”

I no longer have a Facebook account, and I find myself spending less and less time online. As adulthood settles on me—no passing fad, it turns out, but a chronic condition—I’m increasingly drawn back to the deeply engaged reading of my childhood. The books have changed, and my absorption is not always as total as it once was, but I can still find, slipped like a note between the pages, what Birkerts calls the “time of the self… deep time, duration time, time that is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it.” The gift of reading, the gift of any encounter with art, is that this time spent doesn’t leave me when I lift my eyes from the book in my lap: it lingers, for a minute or a day. “[S]omething more than definitional slackness allows me to tell a friend that I’m reading The Good Soldier as we walk down the street together,” Birkerts writes. “In some ways I am reading the novel as I walk, or nap, or drive to the store for milk.”

Unfortunately, this thrumming-under quality is also true of our horizontal reading. If I’ve spent too long before the pixelated page, that experience, too, clings to the hours that follow. The screen appears before my closed eyes; my thoughts vibrate at the frequency of content, of discourse: pithy, argumentative, living in anticipation of retort. I debate imagined trolls in the shower. “When a work compels immersion, if often also has the power to haunt from a distance,” Birkerts says, and how I wish this haunting were the sole province of great work. It isn’t: ghosts seep through the words on the screen, ghosts of screeds and inanities, of hate and idiocy, of so much—so much!—bad writing.

“But perhaps when the need is strong enough we will seek out the word on the page, and the work that puts us back into the force field of deep time,” says Birkerts. “The book—and my optimism, you may sense, is not unwavering—will be seen as a haven, as a way of going off-line and into a space sanctified by subjectivity.” Oddly enough, here in the dawning days of 2019, my own optimism is strong. It seems clear to me that the need is strong enough—is as strong as it always has been and always will be—for the blossoming, bodily pleasure of reading something remarkable, the way it takes the top of my head off and shows me—palms open, an offering—what’s been churning away in there, all along.

“Resonance—there is no wisdom without it,” Birkerts writes. “Resonance is a natural phenomenon, the shadow of import alongside the body of fact, and it cannot flourish except in deep time.” But time feels especially shallow these days, as the wave of one horror barely crests before it’s devoured by the next, as every morning’s shocking headline is old news by the afternoon. Weeks go by, and we might see friends only through the funhouse mirrors of Snapchat and Instagram and their so-called stories, designed to disappear. Not even the pretense of permanence remains: we refresh and refresh every tab, and are not sated. What are we waiting for? What are we hoping to find?

We know perfectly well—we remember, even if dimly, the inward state that satisfies more than our itching, clicking fingers—and we know it isn’t here. Here, on the internet, is a nowhere space, a shallow time. It is a flat and impenetrable surface. But with a book, we dive in; we are sucked in; we are immersed, body and soul. “We hold in our hands a way to cut against the momentum of the times,” Birkerts assures. “We can resist the skimming tendency and delve; we can restore, if only for a time, the vanishing assumption of coherence. The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”

Mairead Small Staid is a poet, critic, and essayist living in Minnesota.


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