Reading and Our Addiction to Distraction


My name is Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou, and I’m an addict. I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, diver­sion and inattention.

I haven’t reached bot­tom yet, but I’m still embar­rassed to be mak­ing this admis­sion in pub­lic. After all, as an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor, it’s my job to pay atten­tion. You could say that hav­ing a lit­er­a­ture Ph.D. means claim­ing to have a capac­ity to pay atten­tion. It’s called close read­ing for a reason. An addic­tion to dis­trac­tion is extremely inconvenient for aspiring close readers.

How­ever, I’ve increas­ingly become con­vinced that my strug­gle against dis­trac­tion isn’t inci­den­tal to my job. As dis­trac­tions esca­late, cul­ti­vat­ing close atten­tion only grows more impor­tant. It’s my job to teach stu­dents how to focus, how to over­come the same distraction-addiction I strug­gle with daily. This is why I ban lap­tops – and grouse when stu­dents ask to bring e-books – in class. They get in the way of clear think­ing and sus­tained atten­tion, I say.

Which is true. But I’m also skep­ti­cal of nar­ra­tives that vil­ify tech­nol­ogy. If online media weren’t dis­tract­ing us, some­thing else would get in the way (a lovely sum­mer day, for instance). Before the Inter­net stoked my dis­trac­tion addic­tion, TV did a fine job of keep­ing me away from what some second-order part of me wanted to be doing. Complicating matters further, the Inter­net has become a vital part of my lit­er­ary schol­ar­ship, a nec­es­sary tool for writ­ing. Google Books and Google Scholar are the great­est resources ever invented for aca­d­e­mics. If any­thing, these ser­vices haven’t gone far enough in mak­ing text elec­tron­i­cally available.

So which is it? Is the Inter­net a scourge or a boon for the reader? By say­ing that I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion rather than some­thing more amor­phous – like “the Inter­net” or “social media” – I hope my view is plain. Our dis­cus­sions about the future of the book often devolve into a com­par­i­son of so-called e-books and p-books. This dis­course is apoc­a­lyp­tic in tone, often zero-sum in its logic. P-book par­ti­sans such as Sven Birk­erts and Jonathan Franzen fear the diabolical reign of e-books. Others argue for the supe­ri­or­ity of e-books. In The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas claims that e-books can help us exam­ine “unex­am­ined assump­tions about the moral, intel­lec­tual, and archival worth of paper and print” (xiv). P-books, mean­while, are his­tor­i­cally impli­cated in per­pet­u­at­ing “cus­toms of exclud­ing, intim­i­dat­ing, defil­ing, and behav­ing vio­lently toward those who are per­ceived as social or eco­nomic infe­ri­ors” (xii).

This way of talk­ing incor­rectly assumes that books are some­how autonomous. It isn’t ever books – whether e- or p- – that exclude or defile. It’s peo­ple or groups of peo­ple who do, with technological assistance. This means that any dis­cus­sion about the future of read­ing needs to think not only about the form of new read­ing devices but also about the con­text or sit­u­a­tion of reading.

The real divi­sion isn’t between e- and p-books, but between read­ing plat­forms that facil­i­tate long-form atten­tion and those that don’t. When I say I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, what I mean is that my cur­rent read­ing habits don’t mesh well with exist­ing reading plat­forms. That’s why peo­ple want soft­ware like Free­dom or Anti-Social. Internet-enabled readers make it hard to resist the temp­ta­tion to divide our focus.

If this is the case, why not just stick with good old p-books? They’re quite good at keep­ing us on task. It’s true. This is why lap­tops, mobile devices and (when pos­si­ble) e-books ought to be banned from class­rooms. This is why, when I moved into my cur­rent apart­ment, I decided to con­vert a large walk-in closet into a ded­i­cated read­ing room. I put in a book­shelf, an IKEA Poäng and a foot­stool, and I made a pact not to allow elec­tronic devices into the read­ing closet. Free­dom requires lim­i­ta­tion. Fulfilling our second-order desires depends on our ability to regulate our less enlightened impulses.

The prob­lem is that I’m not only a reader but also a scholar, and my schol­ar­ship would be impov­er­ished if I didn’t have access to online resources. To do my job effectively, I have to sit in front of a temptation machine for hours at a time, which makes it hard to treat my dis­trac­tion addiction.

What I want is a book that tran­scends the dis­tinc­tion between e- and p-. I want a book – maybe I should call it a book sys­tem – that trav­els with me into dif­fer­ent con­texts of read­ing with­out los­ing its iden­tity. Some­times, I want to sit down with a book, walled off from the Internet, and just read it. At other times, I want to be able to anno­tate a book, to search it, to write a com­men­tary linked to spe­cific pas­sages in it, to link my com­men­tary to a com­mu­nity of dis­course on the book, to con­struct longer-form reflec­tions on it. Some­times I want my book system to help keep me focused on reading; some­times I want it to allow me to access larger net­works. Dif­fer­ent form fac­tors – and read­ing con­texts – facil­i­tate dif­fer­ent stages in this process. At the moment, we live in an ecol­ogy of incom­pat­i­ble, often poorly designed devices and read­ing plat­forms. A bet­ter read­ing world would allow seam­less move­ment between con­texts and plat­forms. A bet­ter sys­tem would help read­ers do the kind of read­ing they need to do at the times they need to do it.

My read­ing closet has more to teach us about the future of read­ing than any par­tic­u­lar new e-reader plat­forms. It’s my machine for man­ag­ing atten­tion. It’s a space – I might go so far as to say an insti­tu­tion – within which new read­ing habits can emerge. In A Room of One’s Own, Vir­ginia Woolf argued that women very lit­er­ally need room to facil­i­tate writ­ing. Read­ers too, just as much as writ­ers, need a room, a mate­r­ial infra­struc­ture, to facilitate reading. A read­ing closet is one tech­nol­ogy for doing this. If I’m addicted to dis­trac­tion, it’s my recov­ery program.

So: ignore the gadget-obsessed, platform-mongering tech­nol­o­gists. The future of read­ing is the future of sit­u­a­tions, insti­tu­tions and habits of reading.