Reading in the Age of Distraction

There’s something cheeky about the budding genre of books about books. Isn’t it a little ironic, even self-congratulatory, to read a book about why reading books is so wonderful? Maybe, but many of these books are responses to troubling trends: people are not only losing interest in books, but even the ability to read books is declining thanks to dismal attention spans. We are constantly fed spasmodic bites of digital information about breaking news, the lives of our “friends,” dumb things our political adversaries say, and puppies being rescued from ditches. Our consciousness reels under the frenetic deluge of endless demands for our attention. We trudge on under the “tyranny of everyday anxieties,” in which our minds are “colonized by anxieties large and small.”

These latter quotes come from Alan Jacobs’ newest book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, a timely reflection for those in the doldrums of a disoriented, digitized era. Breaking Bread is a book about books written by the dead, and how the dead might be our unexpected allies in our quest for intellectual clarity and mental serenity amidst the digital clamor consuming what Matthew Crawford calls the “attentional commons.” 

To deal with information overload, Jacobs introduces the useful concept of “informational triage”: the “instantaneous judgment” that everyone uses to filter through the boundless stimuli competing for our focus. He says that we all must be “ruthless in deciding how to deploy our attention.” Doing so is a matter of mental survival: “To avoid madness we must learn to reject appeals to our time, and reject them without hesitation or pity.” We’ve learned to constantly and mechanically ignore vast swaths of data. But it’s worth pondering how one’s triage strategy can be helpful—or harmful. Does my current triage strategy filter for ideas, thoughts, and data that give me a general sense of satisfaction with my life, my place in the world? Or does it give me a doleful yet panicked and claustrophobic sense that I’m “trapped in [my] social structure and life pattern, imprisoned, deprived of meaningful choice,” as Jacobs put it?

Readers, Jacobs contends, should heed Horace’s timeless advice and add “the writings of the wise” to their attentional arsenal. Quoting Horace in part, Jacobs says that the writings of our forebears “draw us out of our daily, our endlessly cyclical, obsessions with money and with ‘trivial things’—the kinds of obsessions…that make us jump from thought to thought…. In ‘anxious alteration.’” 

Unfortunately, as Jacobs knows, finding respite in older books isn’t that easy. Writers of old, as we are all painfully aware, often say offensive, or just plain bizarre, things (like Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium supposing that “primeval man” ran with “four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air”). Their ideas can be so repulsive that “we are strongly tempted to turn away in disgust and horror.” 

Oddly enough, herein lies the salience of reading the dead. We cannot “punish them nor reward them,” Jacobs points out. They are a “strange mixture of vices and virtues, foolishness and wisdom, blindness and insight.” They frustrate us, but it’s “frustration mixed with admiration and even love.” And, most antiseptically of all, they remind us that we too are haphazard bundles of folly and austerity, frivolity and magnanimity. Contemplating the past can also free our minds: it allows us to “cut through the thick, strong vines that bind our attention to the things of the moment.” Abundant are the rewards—clarity, context, patience, even kinship—of reading our predecessors.

But for many, the frantic pace of our informational and social world seems to have sapped the appeal of and motivation for book reading, which is a hard-won skill and discipline. Maryanne Wolf, in her fascinating 2018 book Reader Come Home, emphatically reminds us: “human beings were never born to read.” Literacy, unlike language acquisition, does not have in-built neural networks corresponding to it. Every person must create, through years of schooling, the neural pathways that facilitate high-level literacy. In his 2011 book, The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction, Jacobs says that contemplative, leisurely reading must take on a life of its own, independent of academic contexts. As crucial as formal education is to learning to read, schooling (for better or for worse) usually incentivizes “skimming” and “reading carefully for information in order to upload content.”

To savor books, on the other hand, requires unbroken attention and sitting silently for long stretches of time. And there is an unsettling shortage of unbroken, sustained attention. Checking phones between 150 and 190 times a day creates and feeds into “continuous partial attention,” as writer Linda Stone put it. Book reading, Nicholas Carr famously admitted in his 2008 Atlantic piece, is no longer possible for the many now ex-bookworms who are residents of the digital age. 

We are peering over the precipice of a post-literary, digital age, wherein the future of books is uncertain. Reading Breaking Bread with the Dead under such circumstances provokes ominous questions: What will happen to a society that no longer looks to books as a source of intellectual enrichment, of cultural fecundity? Are books merely a helpful but non-essential cognitive tool, marching toward their ultimate fate in the dustbin of history? Do books by the dead have any relevance in the digital age? Or can they offer some insights uniquely exalted, perhaps even magical?

Our era of distraction, of course, casts disciplined activities like book-reading as dull drudgery. Attention is so attenuated, in fact, that no one really knows what to pay attention to. We’re lost in the flurry of stimuli, with no signposts indicating where to focus. Jacobs argues that as “a way of coping with social acceleration,” there’s been widespread “abandonment of serious reflection on what makes life good.” Many of us are so glued to immediate concerns that we don’t even realize there might be anything lasting, or noble, or satisfying awaiting us outside of “trivial concerns.” Or maybe that’s the unspoken and perhaps unexamined conviction of those driven by the impulse and whim of accelerated social environment: frivolity is all there is. In that case, it’s best to let one’s informational triage go on autopilot, filtering for whatever happens to glitter most. 

But Jacobs’ book provides rich resources for thinking about why books are special and irreplaceable. Part of what makes books extraordinary is that they draw out of human beings remarkable feats of sustained, elaborate, sometimes exquisite thinking. Books channel our attention to imaginative and analytical wonders unprecedented in human history. Perhaps we have entered the “golden age of television,” whereby TV shows have become the primary medium of cultural creation, but TV cannot replicate cognitive wonders gained by book reading. Indeed, it is no coincidence that so many shows and movies are based upon books (fictional and non-fictional). Books are better at harnessing and channeling the vast imaginative capacities of the human mind.

Maryanne Wolf writes that “insight” lies at “the end of the reading act.” Awaiting readers are “inestimable thoughts that from time to time irradiate our consciousness with brief, luminous glimpses of what lies outside the boundaries of all we thought we knew before.” And older books, as Jacobs notes, are especially remarkable in this respect: they allow us, through deep and steady attention, to observe the tapestry of another era, another civilization, in all its delicate and intricate detail. 

The human heart and mind are ill-suited to the frenzy of data beleaguering us in every waking moment. While serious and grave ideas can be packaged in digital information bites, such cursory presentation robs them of intellectual gravitas.

Most importantly, books (especially great ones) are a record of things worthy of human attention. They train our thoughts to consider the anguishing complexity and boundless wonders to be found in life. They introduce us to the keen minds who have debated and pondered life’s most difficult and crucial questions. They can direct us to love what’s worth loving. Books by the dead do all of these things particularly well: because they’ve survived the test of time, we know that they’ve successfully guided generations of readers in thinking about life’s essential matters. Of course, they can be dangerous, too. Sometimes people find in them inspiration to commit unspeakably evil acts. But human beings can find wickedness anywhere, so the risk of evil is no greater in books than other good activities. There are also books that argue what those who are absorbed in the digital commons assume: all is pointless frivolity. And even that position is worth deploying our wondrous attentional capacities and contemplating. 

So books are roadmaps for figuring out and living life according to what’s worth living and dying for. One of the many great insights of Breaking Bread with the Dead is that our claustrophobic informational environments don’t just determine what we think, but what we love. Which ultimately means this: unless we anchor ourselves in worlds and realities outside our immediate informational stratosphere, we cannot really love anything. Jacobs quotes R. A. Lafferty’s short story, “Slow Tuesday Night,” to capture the ethos of digital distraction: “I drift from whim to whim, and my tastes being constantly enslaved to opinion, I cannot a single day be sure what I will love next.” Such fickle and detached love is no love at all. Our ability to love, then, hinges on our ability to pay attention. Jacobs makes a strong case not just to study the dead, but befriend them, break bread with them, and love them. If we can love the dead by offering them careful attention to their ideas, we can face our own days with a keener sense of what’s lasting and true.

The human heart and mind are ill-suited to the frenzy of data beleaguering us in every waking moment. While serious and grave ideas can be packaged in digital information bites, such cursory presentation robs them of intellectual gravitas. The format of a book on the other hand, with its cognitive and temporal demands, corresponds to the weight of more serious subject matter, thus safely harboring profound ideas and stories. Of course, not all books are weighty and serious, nor do they need to be. But by and large, books remind us that some things are worth careful contemplation. And Jacobs contends that aged books can arm readers with greater “temporal bandwidth,” which firmly roots them in the vast arch of time that stretches backward and forward. Such temporal bandwidth enables readers to better withstand the daily chaos of digitized life.

Jacobs ends his book with a lovely quotation from English writer Paul Kingsworth about the Magdalenians’ elegant drawings of bison, mammoths, and ibex in the Black Chamber of the Niaux Cave in France. Kingsworth says, “[W]hatever happened in the Black Chamber was not driven by utility…they were forging a connection to something way beyond everyday reality…This was a meeting with the sacred.” So too with books. If we elevate our minds beyond daily toils, into the manifold worlds that await us in their pages, perhaps we too can glimpse the sacred.