Published 11 August 200911 August 2009 · Main Posts the internet is to readers what asbestos is to builders Jeff Sparrow 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 Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland. More by Jeff Sparrow › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 10 November 202311 November 2023 · Subscriberthon 2023 On the final day of Subscriberthon, Overland’s most important members get to have their say Editorial Team BORIS A quick guide to another year of Overland, from your trusty feline, Boris. I liked the ginger cat story, though it made my human cry. I liked the talking cat, too, but I’m definitely in the “not wasting my time learning to talk” camp. But reading is good. And writing is fun, though it’s been challenging […] 1 First published in Overland Issue 228 9 November 20239 November 2023 · Subscriberthon 2023 On the second-last day of Subscriberthon, Overland’s co-chief editor Evelyn Araluen speaks truth to power Editorial Team To my friends and comrades, I’m not sure if there’s language to communicate how this last month has utterly changed me. This time a few weeks ago the busyness and chaos of bricolage arts and academic labour had so efficiently distracted me from my anxiety about the upcoming referendum that I forgot to prepare myself for its inevitable conclusion.