“To Read, You Need Mental Silence Except For The Words” – Insight from Johann Hari on the Value of Reading, Especially Reading (Physical) Books

“It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to have living minds.”
Johann Hari.


I have written earlier about my new found love of my iPad.  It has exceeded my greatest expectations.  I am reading many, many “samples” of books on both iBooks and Kindle apps.  This practice, so very easy on my iPad, has become invaluable!  And, I have now read my first full novel this way – Carte Blanche, the new James Bond.

But, I still read most of my nonfiction, and especially business, books the old fashioned way – with a physical book open and pen in hand.  I underline, I write myself notes – sometimes, lots of notes!

(Yes, you can “write” a note and highlight passages on these apps – but it is not quite the same.  I don’t remember what the e-book page looks like after I have marked it up – a life-long practice of mine).

Johann Hari

But why do I so love the experience of reading a book?  This article captures my feelings, and says it better than I could.  This is a pretty long series of excerpts – but I still encourage you to click though and read the entire article.  It is a terrific read.  Now, don’t get distracted and check your e-mail half way through reading it.  (Andrew Sullivan posted a brief excerpt; it is on Huffington Post here, and on Hari’s own site here).

Excerpts from In the age of distraction, we will need books more than ever by Johann Hari:

The book — the physical paper book — is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 percent 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. I think we should start there — because it shows why we need the physical book to survive, and hints at what we need to do to make sure it does.

In his gorgeous little book The Lost Art of Reading — Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, the critic David Ulin admits to a strange feeling. All his life, he had taken reading as for granted as eating — but then, a few years ago, he “became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind was wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. “What I’m struggling with,” he writes, “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.”

…To read, you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words. That’s getting harder to find.

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. As Ulin puts it: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction… It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”

Most humans don’t just want mental snacks forever; they also want meals. The twenty hours it takes to read a book require a sustained concentration it’s hard to get anywhere else. Sure, you can do that with a DVD boxset too — but your relationship to TV will always ultimately be that of a passive spectator. With any book, you are the co-creator, imagining it as you go. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, literature is the only art form in which the audience plays the score.

The idea of keeping yourself on a digital diet will, I suspect, become mainstream soon. Just as I’ve learned not to stock my fridge with tempting carbs, I’ve learned to limit my exposure to the web — and to love it in the limited window I allow myself.

I suspect I will continue to read both ways.  I did successfully read the James Bond novel with focused discipline, so it is possible.  But I fully agree with Hari – you need undistracted focus, in the “mental silence of nothing but the words” on the page (or screen).

Reading is such a pleasure!

“It turns out, in the age of super-speed broadband we need dead trees to have living minds.”

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