I haven’t followed the distraction wars very closely. That’s not a joke, I really haven’t paid close attention. I gather that a bunch of people of varying degrees of seriousness have expressed concerns about the effect the Internet has had on the way people think. A listicle of their worries would presumably include the Twitterfication of reading, the Buzzfeedification of writing, the Googlefication of research, and the Facebookification of relationships. I further gather that the debate hinges on whether these phenomena are real or just Luddite panic, and, if real, whether these new ways of reading, writing, and relating are worse than the old ways or just different.
I don’t have an argument to contribute to this debate since, like I said, I don’t think I’ve ever read any of these articles all the way through (not even an Alan Jacobs or a Rebecca Solnit). What I can offer is a data point. An atypical data point, too, since I’ve missed this whole scuffle not because I’ve been too distracted but because I’ve been too undistracted.
In the last six months I’ve eliminated from my reading life everything that felt like empty carbs. The rule of thumb was: In a year, will I look back and think that this was a good use of my reading time, which after all is limited? The result was a reading diet made up almost entirely of books, plus a handful of magazines, some blogs, no newspapers, and no articles about how Tumblr is making us stupid.
If I had deliberately set out to design a reading life that took into account all the warnings about digital natives and their addiction to distraction, the result would have been the same. Alas, after six months, I have to report that the results have not been entirely satisfactory.
I don’t mean that the advocates of “slow reading” are lying about its advantages. They’re all true, which is why, now that I’ve started being more selective about what I read, I never want to go back. It’s like home cooking. You think it’ll be hard to motivate yourself to fire up the stove instead of grabbing takeout, but once you get into the swing of it, you realize that it’s more nutritious and also tastier. It’s not even any more time-consuming, since you’re mostly just repurposing time you would have spent anyway.
Far from being a difficult regimen to keep to, this system has a tendency to become stricter over time. I started by recognizing the obvious: A well-written and expertly informed book is more enjoyable than a magazine article that’s just well-written, or a blog post that’s neither. That same logic led to a five-year waiting period on new books, to sift the real merit from the hype. And if five years is good, ten years must be even better—or fifty, or a hundred.
Eventually you realize that you could set the bar as high as it could possibly be—“I will only read books by honest-to-God geniuses writing at the top of their powers, or books that help me better appreciate those gems by giving me background knowledge or points of comparison”—and you’ll still run out of time on this earth before you even come close to running out of books to read. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the market for a dose of enlightenment, an intellectual puzzle, a shot of exhilaration, or a belly laugh. You’re more likely to find it in a book that has managed to avoid the oblivion of history than in a Tweeted link, much less a crappy summer blockbuster or a hastily churned-out TV show. And why settle for amusing when you can have engrossing?
With news and blogs, the trend runs in the other direction: No matter how low you set the bar, the amount of material that will clear it is close to zero. When I started scrutinizing my consumption of blogs and periodicals, all I intended to do was cull my hate reads—that is, the authors who consistently annoy me but who I kept reading just to get the moral sugar high that comes from yelling at the computer screen. Not only did this seem spiritually hazardous, but I figured that if something doesn’t bring me any joy, it’s stupid to waste time reading it.
This perfectly sensible razor, in practice, turns out to be more like an atom bomb. After all, the boost you feel from having an opinion on the stories in a given news cycle is almost as hollow as the hate-read sugar high, and since you’re unlikely to develop a worthwhile opinion anyway when all you have to go on are the not-so-well-informed scribblings of reporters on deadline, why bother keeping up if you don’t really want to?
The answer, I have learned, is that unplugging from the zeitgeist makes it really hard to talk to people. (You’d think that six months of a completely overhauled reading life would have yielded a grander conclusion.) There are only so many times you can respond to someone’s well-intentioned conversation starter with “Sorry, I haven’t followed that story because it brought me no joy to do so,” or “I figured it wasn’t cosmically important for me to have an opinion on that, and since the topic didn’t interest me I didn’t bother to form one,” or “I have no idea what meme you’re talking about, because I used the time I was going to spend on Facebook to finish Boswell’s life of Johnson.”
You have no factoids to swap, because you no longer deal in factoids. No memes, no news bulletins, no hey-did-you-see’s. Topics not derived from the media should be safe ground, theoretically, but you’d be surprised how many of the reference points people use to understand their own stories come from stuff they’ve seen on Facebook or on TV. These days, socializing at a bar or browsing through Twitter, I feel like a time traveler from the 19th century. Or earlier.
This is not a post about me and my problems. I don’t even have a problem, really, since I can resume keeping up with the zeitgeist whenever I want, lesson learned. The only conceivable obstacle would be a diminished tolerance for bad writing. I’ve been so spoiled by a steady diet of genius that whenever I get the impression that an author is a bad writer, hasn’t done his research, or is unlikely to say something I haven’t already thought of, I find it difficult to keep reading. Which means that my newfound discipline has made everyday forms of concentration more difficult, not less.
But again, this isn’t meant as a cautionary tale. The point is to throw a little cold water on the arguments of the Twitterphobes and meme-haters whose cases are based on a certain picture of what a healthy and mature reading life looks like. If that picture looks anything like what I’ve been doing for the last six months, someone should tell them that it doesn’t work.
Certainly we can all stand to be a little more thoughtful about why we read what we read. Am I reading David Brooks just so I can get riled up about what a moderate he is? Am I reading celebrity gossip because I think it will give me a hit of moral superiority? Have I convinced myself of the delusion that it will have the slightest effect on our “national conversation” if I develop what feels like a really well-informed position on the day’s headline controversy, and the next day’s, and the next’s? Those aren’t great reasons to read anything, at least they’re not good enough for me.
But after six months of sticking with only the most unimpeachable reason—I’m reading this because it makes me happy for reasons I wouldn’t be ashamed to admit—I have gained a new appreciation for some of the stupid reasons. Viral articles give you something to talk with strangers about. Blog posts give you an excuse to email your friends. The news cycle helps mark the passage of time, differentiating one week from the next and one’s own century from those gone by (not an unalloyed good by any means, but nevertheless indispensable to sanity).
These scraps of text may be, in themselves, entirely or nearly devoid of content, and if any Luddite wants to urge people to be more self-aware about that, I’m all for it. But positively luxuriating in content for six months has taught me that content isn’t everything.