The centering power of reading in an age of mass distraction

If reading is not always an act of liberation, it is at least an act of self-definition. It is an experience of solitude in which we become unavailable to those immediately around us. Even when we read to someone else, usually a lover or a child, or have them read to us, the effect is to be pulled together into an orbit defined by the book. In reading we make a public space into something private, and find a way to be private in public. . . .

What’s more, we are never just reading: we are always reading in a specific place and time, in a certain chair, at the window or in the basement, hot or cold, sleepy or wide awake, alone or in a crowded room. In an essay on Ruskin, Proust writes that when we look back on our favorite childhood days of reading, what we remember is all the interruptions that kept us from the book — the family that was calling us to dinner, for example, the very dinner that was ruined because we spent the whole meal wishing we were still reading. But now the memory of the reading is riddled with all its interruptions, and we look back on them fondly as part of the same event.”

Maybe that also describes what it’s like to watch movies or television shows. I don’t think it describes what it’s like to use a phone. It could be that in ten or twenty years I will look back fondly on these nights on the couch, where I panic over the headlines, compulsively like photos on Instagram, check my email, and return to the headlines on the great hamster wheel of contemporary enervation. Is this reading? Will I recall the interruptions that wrench me away from the latest political disaster with fond nostalgia, the cries of the baby intermingled with tweets about sexual harassment and rising sea levels? What I know is that on the nights when I force myself to open a book, I feel like a person, an individual engaged in an activity at once secret and communal, rather than a receptacle of mass information.

Full text: “Reading in the Dark

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD; GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES; and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on January 30, 2018, in Arts & Entertainment, Society & Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Matt, your article, “The Centering Power of Reading in an Age of Mass Distraction” is right on point. While I have always been an avid reader of more complex fiction (DeLillo) and non-fiction, I did notice this past year, that I was doing less wholistic reading and significantly pulled into the mass distraction of social media where people spill their guts every minute with not too much reflection – more of a painful scream or terrible rant into the universe. I guess it helps momentarily (I tried it) but overall it is not helping me so I turned back to my reading to gain some balance and perspective – to reacquaint myself with my own interior space. I am not looking to block out the world as much as to find a way of relating to it in a thoughtful way that maintains my equilibrium and provides another view to people in these chaotic times. Keep writing, I am reading.

  2. Neil Postman’s ‘The Disappearance of Childhood’ might be of interest. Argument is that childhood as we know it evolved as the result of the printing press and the need for literacy as an adult marker; that the arrival of electronic media has been eroding that – the boundary between the adult world and the child’s one is now pretty much gone. That book was written in the late 80s/ early 90s, and if anything, smartphones and social media, pronhub, etc. have only accelerated that drift.

    He mentions the linearity of book reading vs. the non-linearity of mass electronic media. The focus required for books, abstraction, concentration, vs. literalism and distraction of electronics.

    Even when internet produced the need for greater reading over TV, that reading is non-linear – hyperlinks everywhere, a real problem when you’re trying to follow a single line of thought (the tree branch explosion you get on wikipedia, for example, can be useful but also very distracting).

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