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the internet is to readers what asbestos is to builders

OK, it’s anecdotal. Still, I’ve had the same conversation about five times in the last few weeks, with people remarking on how difficult they’re suddenly finding it to read a novel without distraction. I noted it last night. I sat down with a book I’d been meaning to read for months only to lose focus within minutes. Maybe someone had sent a new email. What was happening on Twitter? Should I check Facebook? What’s this novel about again?

Here’s the book editor from the LA Times saying something similar:

Sometime late last year — I don’t remember when, exactly — I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. [snip]

For many years, I have read, like E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” primarily at night — a few hours every evening once my wife and kids have gone to bed. These days, however, after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I’m reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.

That’s not a technological problem, it’s a social one, and so in that sense my headline is a bit misleading. It’s not all to do with the internet. Actually, I suspect academic life produces the same pressures, since the relentless pressure to publish leads to quote mining rather than serious reading. You find the passage you need and move on, rather than sitting down to absorb the whole book.

Modern life is quite simply faster now than a generation ago, and that affects our attitude to information. If you watch, say, a Hitchcock thriller, it’s hard not to find yourself frustrated at how slowly scenes are established. Moves from the fifties are positively leisurely compared to the sudden jump cuts of the contemporary action flick.

Nonetheless, nothing exemplifies the process more clearly than the internet, where the pressure is to constantly move to something better, where pop-ups and flashing icons compete for your attention and where every page is designed so that viewers won’t respond with the dreaded acronymn TLDNR (too long did not read).

Does this damage your ability to enjoy literary fiction — or indeed any long books that require prolonged concentration? It seems to me that it does. Meanjin recently hosted a discussion about blogging that touched on similar themes. But I’d be interested in other people’s reactions. Has anyone else out there finding their own reading habits changing?

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Well, certainly my attention span is totally shot these days. I spend my entire life doing the round of email and twitter (not so much facebook, which i'm starting to loathe) and can only read a few pages of a nobel at a time.

  2. I recognise the symptoms in myself to some extent but don't see this as so much of problem for me. I think It might be that i've developed my internet reading habits alongside my novel reading habits, and hadn't established one before the other. I can sit down and read a novel for hours – and only getup to check for updates rarely, but when i'm not reading or doing anything specific I'll check things neurotically. I did for example take a phone call, respond to emails, check tweets etc within the few minutes it took me to write up this comment… but overall I still feel I can focus just as well and concentrate on reading novels, or anything else long that I'm interested in

    Then again, time will tell how this particular asbestos will take affect in the end… it could be too soon for me to see what it's doing

  3. Now if you combine internet addiction with a toddler…

    My attention span is pretty crapo and probably getting worse, but one good/bad thing about big city living is congestion and commuting. Trains and buses are for books and crosswords – so that's at least 10 to 15 hours a week. Also given I sit in front of a PC at work all day I try and go and read in my lunch break a couple of times a week.

  4. i have noticed i tend to read six books at a time these days instead of one or two.

    can’t seem to read novels while i’m writing them anyway. one big narrative at a time seems to be absorbing enough.

    if a book is good enough it will keep my attention. that’s true of blog posts too! though i tend to read online stuff with the radio/podcast going and several tabs open at once.

    excuse my optimism, but perhaps instead of getting worse at reading we are simply getting better at multitasking.

  5. Exactly right! I fled Facebook a couple of months ago (it was more difficult than leaving a cult) because (among other reasons) it was eroding my spare time and making me an attention deficit information junkie.

    Does anyone else have a problem actually remembering the info they read on the net? If I read it on paper i can retain it, but if it's read on screen, it seems to go in the short term memory box, not the long term one.

    Then again when i went to uni we had this thing called a library and every reference you wanted to chase up had to be physically pulled from a shelf and read at the desks….at best photocopied.

    They must miss the smell of old paper, kids at uni these days….?

  6. Was it here or somewhere else that I read about the way the internet is changing our experience of reading? Often something I am reading raises a train of thought that I quickly look into using the internet. I guess there is a difference with fiction but there are also sometimes aspects of a novel that draws my attention to the author, their other works, similar writers and so on … and I know the answers I am asking myself are at my finger tips.

  7. I agree with Chris #1, in that I read books quite differently from reading on screen, so I can still focus on a book. But perhaps I psych myself into concentrating when I'm reading books. Newspapers, on the other hand…

  8. The solution is to turn off the internet and read your book. We're a transitional generation discovering all these marvelous ways to read but already I see my Gen Zs (u 16s) picking up their books after deliberately turning off their computers. The book is part of the ritual of bedtime or quiet-time. Maybe we have lost our rituals or changed them to our detriment. To reply to Sophiec, we probably do multitasking and expect quick responses to all our tangential thoughts. Perhaps we have look at the instrinsically addictive aspect of new technologies and just say 'no'

  9. This post really set me thinking; and I suppose for me it balances out in the end. I do find it harder simply to sit down and read; but I think that has less to do with the internet specfically, and more to do with having less time than I used to. On the other hand, through blogging and so on, the internet has undoubtedly enriched me as a reader. Swings and roundabouts, perhaps.

  10. You might have noticed that the comments system has gone all whack. Dunno what the problem is but we are endeavouring to fix it.

  11. I've certainly noticed this. I've been trying to develop my reading habit back lately.

    But one thing I think is useful to note is that some people adapt to these things. Whilst I hope the novel or even the short story doesn't die, the emergence of flash fiction is interesting and has probably come about from this instant gratification thing.

  12. A while ago my eyes would occasionally go blurry. I went to an optometrist about it. She asked me how much reading I did. When I said about seven or eight hours a day, she just laughed at me. When people like Jeff, and the editor from the LA Times, say they're having trouble reading as much as they used to, it's something my optometrist would laugh about, I suspect. A marathon runner doesn't do a marathon every day. After he's been running, he doesn't wonder why his feet are sore when he walks, or why he feels tired. Because all of us coming to these discussions, have been running for years; mostly non-stop.

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