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.