Essay: How to read in a restless world
The defining character of culture in the digitized 21st century is the consumption of multiple cultural experiences at the same time; our expectations from the practice of reading might have to shift to get attuned to our new reality
Did your New Year’s resolution include reading more? But do you sometimes find that you have trouble focusing on your reading, especially books in their entirety – in ways you did not before? Given the times we live in, I have to say this is quite natural. We can still be passionate readers – but our expectations from the practice of reading might just have to shift a little to get attuned to our reality.
I started thinking about this while chatting with one of my students. A first-year in college, born in the 21st century, she is a digital native, someone who has literally not seen a time when the internet wasn’t around. She told me that she used to love reading, but in the last couple of years, she’s found it hard to focus on her reading. The distractions always steal her away.
Once in a while, digital natives and digital immigrants have the same kinds of problems – especially as we move through different phases in our relationship with technology.
We’re still trying to read like we used to in the old times; this is true even of the digital natives who are beginning their reading lives in this new reality. There is an existing mode and discourse of reading – the only one we have – and everybody who reads, especially so-called “serious readers,” must get initiated into that mode. But what is that mode?
The social phenomenon of private reading, as we know it is fairly recent in the history of humanity. While printed texts played a role in ancient China, mainly as scripture and SparkNotes for their version of UPSC exams, ancient and medieval Europe only saw books as rare and precious handwritten manuscripts owned by churches, royalty, and wealthy aristocrats. Sustained reading on a mass scale would have to wait for the popular spread of printed books in the 18th century. Capitalism, by then, would expand to create the modern middle class, who had the literacy, leisure, and purchasing power to buy books on a large enough scale to create and sustain a publishing industry. Hence, was born a modern practice – sitting in isolation and reading quietly for a long time, to finish a whole book.
Reading as entertainment reached its peak during the Victorian age – especially of long books such as the novel, which eventually went from being a popular genre to the status of high art, unfortunately (but understandably) losing its popularity in the process. Excitement over novels reached a stage where people crowded the New York harbour to pounce on people arriving from England with questions about the next instalment of the serialised Dickens novel that had not yet reached America: “Is Little Nell dead?” It was the kind of popularity enjoyed by the soap opera in the 20th century and the web-series today. The first techno-generic challenge to the dominance of books as popular entertainment would come in the early 20th century, from the art form of cinema. Cinema’s most direct threat was not to reading but to its performative precedent, theatre. But just as the newer art form of photography, with its superior capture of reality, drove the older art of painting to Impressionism, cinema inspired theatre to experimental forms such as epic and expressionism, drawing attention to the flesh-and-blood presence that made it unique.
The 20th-century challenge to the primacy of reading was different in one important way from what would come in the 21st. The former needed full attention, especially back in the days when the only way to watch a film was to enter a dark hall, leaving everything else behind. Real and metaphoric equivalence was offered by the single-screen cinema hall. Multiplex theatres inside shopping malls made movie watching one possibility among many, offering several movies from which one could choose.
That is, possibly, the defining character of culture in the digitized and disembodied 21st century: consuming multiple cultural experiences at the same time. I remember an editorial argument in n+1 magazine from a few years ago that said something similar: that we are now more likely to read something while also listening to music, enjoy a joke or a debate on social media in between a movie streaming on our iPad. It’s a technologically-curated version of older pleasures such as enjoying fine wine with poetry, or mead with the minstrels. The print-era singularity of the artistic experience will be replaced by a more pluralized, fragmented, and differently fulfilling experience.
That is what I told my student: that I, too, have lost the old-world concentration I had from the time multisensory digital distractions were – in my case – unavailable (as opposed to her situation of usage-restriction). My body is too restless. It’s used to multiple activities, multiple buttons, multiple screens. But my personal solution to the problem has been lasting and effective. I walk around the house with my book or e-reader. The restless energy gets channelled in my movement while I keep my mind drowned in language. For those who are able to do this, I highly recommend it!
I think we need to accept that the way to read in an older world – with long, undivided attention, as a singular activity – won’t be available to us most of the time. It’s okay to read while finishing a 45-minute lap on your cross-trainer; it’s okay to read with music in the background, our mind swimming between sound and sentence. It’s okay to love the beauty of physical books while actually doing most of your reading with e-readers, with multiple options stored in its screen. All of this not because we’re busier – because that’s always an excuse – but because something fundamentally has shifted in our sensibility, and it needs to contain multiple energies even while it tends to a classic love, that of reading.
The modernity of print gifted us the singularity of a beautiful artistic and intellectual experience. To celebrate it in our restless present, we can turn that restlessness into multiple windows of experience, simultaneously enjoyable.
Saikat Majumdar’s books include the novels The Firebird and The Scent of God, and the nonfiction, College.