I tried to conduct an experiment at work today, but I failed miserably. All I had to do was read straight without distractions, but it was impossible. People were talking loudly next to my cubicle. I even put in earplugs. (Our data center is very noisy so you need earplugs to not damage your hearing over time.) This still didn’t work. I was reminded of my attempts at meditation last year. I would try to focus but my mind would wander. It was difficult to center myself and get drawn into the text.
I also wanted to take notes while I was reading. I don’t think this is pernicious, as it would be with the internet. Let me jump to that story first and then return to reading on paper.
Online, I was reading Nicholas Carr’s essay yet again. I decided there were passages I wanted to take note of and the easiest way to do this would be to paste them into a tumblr account I have. It’s not a true blog, just a collection of random unformed thoughts. Tumblr was having some network issues, so it was taking forever for the pages to load. What did I fill this time with? Quiet contemplation? Repetition of the quote to embed it in my memory? NO! Twitter.
Such is the pernicious distraction of the internet. It forces itself into all the cracks in our life. If something isn’t loading fast enough, then open another tab and read something else. It is constantly forcing new content onto us. There’s no space. No emptiness to ruminate.
Which brings me back to reading and taking notes. When I read, I’ll often stick a post-it in my book as a note. Is this kind of distraction any better or worse than what we do on the internet? Does this reading count as deep reading? In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, there’s a scene with different types of readers explaining how they read. One said this:
“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful for me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it.”
When I read the prompt for today, I thought of this quote for two reasons: 1) I wondered whether this type of reader was similar to the distracted internet reader. 2) That person is totally me. So, does this mean I read books as if I read online? I think the answer is no.
There is a difference between taking notes in a book while daydreaming and reading Twitter while waiting for something to load. With the latter, content is being pushed to me. My thoughts are invaded. With the former, I’m still engaged in rumination. I’m still within the space of your own mind, alone.
The daydreamer wanders, but does not flit. The daydreamer is not superficial. In the daydreamer’s mind, connections are being forged by these tangents. The daydreamer is active. The internet-skimmer, meanwhile, is passive. The connections, via hyperlink, are made for him, not by him.
Thus, although I may get distracted, I am distracted by my own thoughts. So, it’s still thinking, not superficial skimming. I want to back this up with a quote from Carr:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. [emphasis added]
The reader from Calvino’s book is engaged in another act of contemplation. He is doing the hard work of making associations and drawing inferences and analogies. Therefore he’s still doing “deep thinking.” And I am too.