"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.
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