June 25, 2011
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Hari Feels Harried

Johann Hari wrings his hands over the fate of the book in the Independent:

The book – the physical paper book – is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 per cent this year alone. It's being chewed by the e-book. It's being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all. It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books.

Hari’s editor is asleep or distracted: if something is almost physically harder, then it’s not actually physically harder, is it? Or, if it’s almost physically harder, then it’s harder in a way that’s almost (but not quite) physical. Either way, the issue is fuzzy.

But we all know what Hari intends, and it, too, is silly. We might sometimes like to imagine that we are more distracted and harried, under greater pressure, facing greater challenges than anyone ever before. But it’s just not true. If you think you’re finding it physically harder to read books, think about sitting down with your great grandfather after a 14-hour shift in the mine or the mill, surrounded by squalling infants, and reading by candlelight when candles cost a bloody fortune and there was never enough to eat.

If you read a book with your laptop thrumming on the other side of the room, it can be like trying to read in the middle of a party, where everyone is shouting to each other. To read, you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words. That's getting harder to find.

If you can hear your laptop thrumming on the other side of the room, you need to shut it off right now because your hard drive is about to demolish itself. Otherwise, you’re hearing a one-inch fan on the other side of the room, and if you can’t read for the noise of a little fan, then all I can say is that you didn’t grow up in a house with two younger sisters, a dog, and parents who were not always in agreement.

And here's the function that the book – the paper book that doesn't beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration.

Except, Hari complains, it doesn’t actually give him the capacity for concentration, because these days he can’t concentrate. “Linear” here is a clever bit a chicanery, seeking to dismiss hypertextuality (and intertextuality) without actual argument or thought. In point of fact, deep, concentrated reading is not “linear”, and we’ve known that since Barthes and Derrida. (Johann Hari was born in 1979. Roland Barthes was born in 1915. If Barthes were alive, he would be old enough to be Hari’s great grandfather.)

That birthdate might be a clue, incidentally. Great Expectations on an iPad is Great Expectations in a Penguin edition, but to be 32 and famous is not quite the same as to be 22 and in college. That a man of 30 should imagine that he could concentrate more acutely when he was 20 does not seem remarkable, nor does it require a technological explanation. Nor is it always true.

Early this morning, I happened to be reading a lively essay about German history on my iPad. The author, Simon Winder, spends a couple of paragraphs in admiration of Adam Elsheimer’s painting, Jupiter and Mercury in the House of Philemon and Baucis, but his publisher didn’t spring for a color plate. Now, I don’t know about you, but there are quite a few paintings by Adam Elsheimer that I myself don’t know very well, so I had no precise idea what Simon Winder was talking about. No problem: I asked my iPad to find an image, and there it was.

Perhaps that’s a distraction, but it seems to me precisely the sort of distraction we want. Perhaps it’s nonlinear, but it’s not any more nonlinear than using a dictionary, much less carrying on a background dialogue with yourself over whether you saw that painting in college, or ought to have done, or whether Gerôme was influenced by Alsheimer, or what this painting might look like if you imagined it from Simon Winder’s description.

Hari’s argument crops up repeatedly, but you never hear it from scientists and engineers. If you need to know how the Diels-Alder reaction works, you read about it. If you need to know how to make sure your building won’t fall down, you read about it. If you want to pass your next exam in partial differential equations, you’re going to read, and you’re going to concentrate, even if your laptop is thrumming. Hell, you’re going to concentrate even if there’s a party in the room. I did it often enough at Swarthmore; do they have no parties in Cambridge colleges?

We’re all more busy and distracted than ever before. We always have been.

Thanks to Michael Druzinsky for the link.