The sad realisation that you've stopped reading books

"There is a value in the deeper nourishment of books. I believe – I remember – that they offer far greater nuance than most other forms. The best ones are simply good for you, and stay with you for life."

"There is a value in the deeper nourishment of books. I believe – I remember – that they offer far greater nuance than most other forms. The best ones are simply good for you, and stay with you for life." Photo: Getty

I left Nelson Mandela in a lime quarry on Robben Island, the same way I abandoned Clarissa Dalloway on her way to the florist, and Ishmael, only shortly after he set sail. That was how far I managed to get into Mandela’s The Long Walk to Freedom, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, before the books joined the mushrooming pile by my bedside, or the increasingly fraudulent display that is my bookshelf.

I was enjoying each one. But I couldn’t seem to finish them.

Somewhere between the invention of Facebook, Game of Thrones entering a third season and the 356th Gif ‘listicle’ on Buzzfeed about signs you’re almost 30, I stopped reading books.

Starting them frequently, but rarely finishing them. I struggle to remember the last time I read one cover to cover. I can’t be certain it was in 2013.

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It wasn’t always so. I grew up surrounded by books, they were an extension of my hands most nights as a child and younger adult. I dragged around a gently-chewed favourite story book as an infant, wrestled over bedtimes as a school-kid to fit in “just a few more chapters Mum!” and had crushes on novel characters as often as I did on dead lead singers.

But increasingly, it seems the dizzying superabundance of readable and watchable and eminently digestible stuff on the internet is proving a powerful opponent.

“I feel your pain,” responded one friend when I admitted my problem (on Facebook, of course). I had put up a status update asking if friends experienced the same shift. “I love the idea of reading books and there are occasions when I have the time to read them,’’ my friend continued. ‘‘But, I've found that years of ‘training’ my brain to quickly shuck different articles, text messages and other quick copy for juicy information has left me unable to relax with a book.

Or, worse, once I think I know what a book is about and how it'll probably end, I get bored of it and look for something else to quickly understand.” “Total FOMO [Fear of Missing Out],” wrote another. “I keep thinking- it's ok, the book will be there to read later so I'll read/watch the interwebs now.

Which is silly because it's not like the online article/TV show is going to self destruct if not read in T-minus 5 mins, but the chance to talk about it with all the other peeps reading it might.” Another described a familiar pattern: “Finish a page, check Twitter, it's all over.” And from another: “I read eight Facebooks a day.” Reading and finishing books with any regularity seems increasingly a preserve of people who have been able to carve out the discipline to do so.

Or those immune to the lure of social media, Netflix and the New Yorker’s blog pages. “I'm trying a 'no electronics in the bedroom that do not create heat or orgasms' policy, so that’s where the books are,” wrote one friend. “Subway ride means an hour and a half's enforced Internet blackout every day,” wrote another from Brooklyn, New York. “By consequence I read one or two books a week- fiction and non-fiction. [My girlfriend] and I will sit next to each other en route and read, forgoing conversation… You need to move somewhere with better trains.” 

There is of course an argument to be made reading fewer books shouldn’t matter, especially if you’re reading other things – brilliant journalism, short stories, Tweets. There may be something inherently conservative in placing so much emphasis on an artform whose heyday may be passing. Ideas and wisdom and humour come in all types of vessels, spoken and written, illustrated, sung and Gif-ed. 

But I can’t help but feel guilty. It’s a personal guilt, because I’m betraying convictions developed young that I still hold, but just can’t seem to follow through on.  There is a value in the deeper nourishment of books. I believe – I remember – that they offer far greater nuance than most other forms. The best ones are simply good for you, and stay with you for life. 

When we reach for our phones or laptop at night instead of the dog-earned book what we might be choosing is the perpetual hyper-connectedness and quick gratification we can get from articles that can be quickly digested, shared and discussed, or the episode of Girls that friends can watch in tandem and Tweet about together.  Things on the internet always feel new, even as they are increasingly familiar. 

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently likened this behaviour to ‘‘spinning your wheels’’ in one space, disappearing into smartphones and laptops which may have the promise of expanding our horizons but too often tuck us away in familiar ‘‘virtual enclaves’’.  

Books can’t be swallowed in one sitting, with several web browsers open, one eye on your email, before moving on to the next post. They ask for an investment of time and disconnectedness from the moment that feels harder and harder and more and more counterintuitive with each new year and each new app, the conditioning of our attention spans and temporary fulfillment of our FOMO by hours online. But this disconnect should be welcome. It should and could be relief. A chance to stretch the brain, dwell and disappear where no Facebook friend or Twitter follower or fellow commenter can find you.

 So tonight I will try a bit harder to make the time, and go back to join Mandela on Robben Island or Mrs Dalloway in that London florist.  Not as a guilt-driven penance but as a kindness to myself. 

Do you read fewer books now thanks to social media and the web? How do you make the time? Josephine Tovey is a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. You can find her Tweeting, when she probably should be reading books, here @jo_tovey

36 comments

  • I've noticed this and not only with books, but with television as well. I seem to spend a lot of time after work on my laptop reading online news articles, or anything that seems vaguely interesting. It's a habit I want sincerely to stop, but a hard one to break.

    Commenter
    Megan
    Date and time
    September 05, 2013, 9:21AM
    • I must confess to wasting way too much time doing this after work too, but it is mainly TV that I have forgone. I'm actually reading more than ever & have set a personal record for books read this year. The ability to read books on my mobile phone has helped with this, no matter where you find yourself with time on your hands, you can always have a library on your phone. I love it! Also reading more physical books too, with thanks to our public libaries! I still feel guilty for time wasted on the net though, as a lot of it is pretty superficial. I agree though, it is a very hard habit to break!

      Commenter
      Toon
      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 1:34PM
  • I think the appealing thing about TV shows, social media and the interwebs is that you can enter into an immediately dialogue with others (whether friends via fb or other fans via twitter) over the things that interest you. "OMG, did you see Dami's performance on Xfactor" and so the narrative continues.

    It gives people a sense of involvement that, short of joining a book club (do people still do that), you can't get from reading a novel.

    Personally, I catch the train to work every morning which is about 30 minutes on a train. Due to the sporadic and patchy 3G service, trying to peruse social media on the train is a frequently painful and frustrating experience (damn you spinning wheel, LOAD ALREADY!!)

    So I've taken to reading books... it's almost zen like. My mind is so focussed during the train ride, I barely even notice the trip to work. So yes, I probably finish 2-3 books a month this way.

    The only problem is when I have nothing to read I get antsy on the train and other people on public transport annoy me. So its always good to have a list of books to read :)

    Commenter
    Adrian
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 05, 2013, 9:22AM
    • OMG, the day I stop reading books is the day I die.
      I read. All the time. Everywhere. And I read everything. (pretty much anyway).
      Could be because I'm in the publishing industry, or because I've had a love of words (printed and otherwise) since I was a child.
      Could also be because I have an e-reader (holding an entire library, available whenever I want) that makes my reading life easier.

      Commenter
      KittyKat
      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 9:36AM
      • Has internet stopped me reading books? Not a chance. Agree with kitty kat - internet is no match for good quality, well-written books, esp. fiction. Love love love getting into someone's else's head and seeing a completely differenet world created by the master craftsperson that is a good author. And I do not even work in publishing!!

        Ps. My latest love affair - The Death of Bees. Read it!

        Commenter
        cj
        Date and time
        September 05, 2013, 12:57PM
      • Yep, me too. I love to completely immerse myself in imagined worlds to lose track of time (and reality) for hours on end. Online content is a fun distraction, but books just keep on drawing me back like a moth to the flame.

        I'm currently re-reading Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time sequence (well OK I've not read book 13 and 14 yet, but any excuse to revisit the other 12). Now, I have to get up at 5am most mornings, but still I find myself saying "I'll just read for 30 minutes or so" when I go to bed at night, then looking up sometime later, seeing the time (usually 1am or so) and thinking "holy s**t, where did all those hours go? Oh well, it was worth it!". And I just cannot see facebook or twitter having that effect on me.

        Commenter
        Fred
        Date and time
        September 05, 2013, 5:59PM
    • While I certainly see this happening ALL around me.. especially the highschool/university aged... I myself have gone backwards...

      As a youth I would rather read the summary online than the actual book but in recent years I've grown to enjoy more and more the depth of a book rather than the shallowness of quick information on a screen.

      We live in a much too fast society, constantly bombarded by news and information we don't need. Turn the phone off, sit in the sun in a quiet park, and enjoy the peace~

      Commenter
      kwok
      Date and time
      September 05, 2013, 9:41AM
      • The internet will NEVER kill books. I will always choose a book over the internet. There is nothing more beautiful and emotionally satisfying that sitting somewhere quiet with a riveting read and losing yourself in someone else's story for a few hours. And the best part is, you can take that story with you and indulge at any time and it's not dependent upon electricity or batteries or anything external. Just you and however you want to carry the book: in your hands, your pocket or your bag.

        Public libraries didn't kill an author's ability to make money. I'd venture that authors make more money from their work now than they ever did. As such, the internet will never kill books. Knowledge can be lost forever if society crumbles and the internet disappears but while ever that knowledge is contained in books first, humans will always prevail and societies will always be rebuilt.

        I have never gone one whole day without reading something. Throughout my life, books have been my comfort, my therapy, my entertainment, my confidant and my best friend. Nothing and nobody else can give you that like a book can.

        Commenter
        Audra Blue
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        September 05, 2013, 9:41AM
        • so true....especially when it comes to kids. My 13 yo saved up and bought his first lap top at the end of last year when he was in Yr 6. Throughout primary school he has devoured books, reading a couple a week and more in the holidays. Since starting high school that has all stopped and his interest has switched to making music using a sophisticated program and playing this hilarious game called Tank Warfare with his Dad. I tell myself at least it's not as mindless and violent as some....(he's only allowed to play games on the weekend). The positives are that the music he makes is mind-blowing in its complexity and he is being a producer rather than mindlessly consuming online content; and the games, well, it's time spent with his dad.
          I am saddened he has ditched books and even the offer of stocking up big on titles he wants hasn't drawn much of a response. And peer group pressure is huge "everyone else does..." but we'll persevere with the weekend only gaming rule. I do wonder how he's going to get back into reading dense texts later on for English (or whatever he goes on to study).
          There is no doubt though that the IT revolution continues undiminished and despite our schools being slow on the uptake (this will hopefully change when the Australian Curriculum is in full swing) the way we do things, entertain ourselves and the way we learn is undergoing a transformative shift.
          And by the way, like you, the pile of books only half started sitting next to the bed, is getting bigger.....but I live in hope....

          Commenter
          Lola
          Date and time
          September 05, 2013, 10:10AM
          • Don't worry Lola, you son will return to books when he's older. I've been a voracious reader since I was 5 but high school nearly killed that side of me. It's awful that the standard of education makes it so hard to learn anything interesting and reading becomes a chore instead of a pleasure like it should be.

            Once I left school, my voracious habit returned. My son hated high school and only did the barest minimum to get by but his love of books stayed steady throughout. I'm glad he kept reading as high school was just a waste of his time and my money. It's easier to gain knowledge through reading for pleasure that to listen to a disinterested teacher droning on through a curriculum they don't have any faith in.

            Commenter
            Audra Blue
            Location
            Brisbane
            Date and time
            September 05, 2013, 12:10PM

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