From Page to Screen

An argument for reading one thing at a time

My new year’s resolution is to read less, more deeply. By this, I mean that I aim to break my habit of skimming multiple texts at a time; to focus on reading one thing from start to finish, before moving on.

Bill Woodrow’s bronze sculpture ‘Sitting On History’ at The British Library. Author's photo

Last year, I carried a thin book called The Lost Art of Reading: Why books matter in a distracted time in my bag for 3 months without finishing it. It’s a very readable book. Every time I cracked it open I enjoyed reading, but I was too distracted to finish it. Although there’s a certain irony to this anecdote, the experience forced me to reflect that I am no longer a deep reader. I’m a skimmer. Or worse, an abandoner.

Currently, seven partly-read books are stacked beside my bed. On my desk are more than 15 books with post-it notes sticking out of the first few chapters. Anxiety-inducing piles of articles I’ve printed for “urgent” reading (sorry, trees) are balanced on every available surface. I have bookshelves in every room of my life.

And that’s just print.

Last year I discovered Zite, a magazine app that trawls the Internet for articles that match my personal interests, based on information I input.

3 screenshots of my Zite feed. Author

For instance, I tell Zite I am interested in Books, Graphic Design and World News. For each of these categories, the app finds articles from international news papers, magazines and blogs and packages them for me, daily.

I can give articles, authors and news sources a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, which allows Zite to further customise my newsfeed. The app has come to know me well – I’m delivered articles from favourite sources such as Brainpickings, Design Observer and the Huffington Post, but also surprised daily from sources I don’t know, or have the time to trawl myself, such as Al Jazeera, BuzzFeed and Publishers Weekly.

Zite also allows me to email articles, or save them to Instapaper, an app that stores documents so I can read them later on my phone, tablet or computer, even when I’m not connected to the Internet.

I believed Zite would change my life. At the breakfast table I’d read the first few sentences of an article, then shoot it off to read on the train or at work. This partially explains my inability to finish the short book on the lost art of reading. I was reading on the train – on my phone.

Inevitably, I ended up with more articles in my email and Instapaper account than I could read. Rather than making my life more efficient, I delayed reading short texts when I had time – over breakfast – for a vague “later” moment. The glut of articles when I opened my already boggy Instapaper or email accounts became a burden.

I stopped reading on the train, retreating to the inane simplicity of checking social media and playing Words With Friends (Scrabble) on my phone. When I got to work, rather than reading the articles, I’d archive them on Delicious, a bookmarking site that allows you to tag and search links, in the hope I’d get time “later” to read them properly.

This manic sampling and linking may be symptomatic of “a distracted time”, but it is out of character for me. I’ve always loved getting lost in a book, reading so passionately I forfeit sleep to turn pages. I’m alarmed that I am unable to sit still and read for an hour.

After reading an article about The Reading Brain in a Digital Age (on Zite – I do still read some things properly) I decided I need to think more deeply about how and what I read, on page and screen.

So, how to finish one book when so many others, and a myriad of digital articles, demand my attention? The obvious answer is: one at a time.

And most importantly, with no distraction. This means turning my phone off and moving away from the computer while reading. Turning my tablet or phone onto “flight mode” for e-reading.

It means reading with discipline – privileging the act of focused reading above the act of acquiring information bites/bytes.

Wish me luck, I suspect this is going to be more challenging than a diet or exercise resolution.

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