The Paris Review: ‘Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction’

Whilst scrolling through Twitterrific on my iPhone recently, I stumbled upon the article Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction by Mairead Small Staid. The article is fantastic.

Based on Sven Birkerts’ work The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, the article details the ways in which long- and short-form writing (i.e. print vs. digital) not only affect the way that we read but also how we understand ourselves and the passing of time. As a person who works in digital communications, I certainly feel the inner conflict of having to engage with lots of short-form content but often wishing to sit down with a longer text like a book.

One part of Staid’s article particularly resonated with me:

I was born in 1988, two years before the development of HTML. I didn’t have a computer at home until middle school, didn’t have a cell phone until I was eighteen. I remember the pained beeping of a dial-up connection, if only faintly. Facebook launched as I finished up high school, and Twitter as I entered college. The golden hours of my childhood aligned perfectly with the fading light of a pre-internet world; I know intimately that such a world existed, and had its advantages.

Whilst I am a few years younger than Staid, I feel like my childhood also fell into a kind of in-between period. I was born in 1992 and my first computer was my family’s Power Macintosh, so I was born and raised in a time when the Internet was certainly present. I also remember the agony of waiting for webpages to load, with the dial-up modem blinking frantically in the corner.

There was no computer in my pocket or on my wrist; the only computer to which I had regular access was on a desk in the study. This highly specific physical context for computer use afforded time for me to explore other things and most importantly, read books.

Last year, I deleted my Facebook account, shut down other profiles, reduced the number of people whom I follow on Twitter and committed to writing and reading longer texts more often. This includes reading books and making an effort to maintain my Daily Ruminations here on Lounge Ruminator. They’re not super-long but they are certainly wordier than normal social media posts.

When I look at my own use of devices, I feel motivated to limit it because I remember a time when reading a computer was kind of like reading a book—you had to go to a different room and set the time aside from others.

If we want to declutter our digital lives and pick up a book, we need to do this consciously. Screen Time in iOS 12 is a great tool for this and if used properly, it can inform you about how you’re using apps and services and whether you need to cut back.

I love my iPhone and Apple Watch but I have significantly reduced the number of app notifications that I can receive. This has made a difference and I plan to continue improving my digital habits.