Books Still Have Place in World of Digital Distraction

(This piece was first published in the Opinion section of the CU Independent)

I wouldn’t have looked twice if he’d pulled out an iPod or PSP. Just another kid killing time on the bus, deep in digital distraction. But the thick paperback in the (I’m guessing) nine-year-old boy’s hands caught me off guard. I can’t recall the title, but the cover had a dragon on it. And somewhere deep within his young mind that dragon was roasting an ill-fated hunter or unfurling its leathery wings across a medieval sky. Whatever scene was playing out it was enough to keep him absorbed, eyes locked to the pages, for the fifteen-minute ride to campus.

The technological overabundance that characterizes 21st century life can be bewildering. The senses are constantly pulled in competing directions. The eyes seeking out the latest visual stimuli; ears flipping through infinite libraries of music. Attention span fractured and unsure of itself. Constant facebook checking, status updating, youtube watching, email refreshing, tweeting, news reading, text messaging, cross-referencing, and general internet hyperactivity is ingrained in the day to day routine.

Sitting down with a single piece of fiction to engage in deep reading seems anathema to the hyperlinked way in which we imbibe information. No links to unknown words or suggestions for further reading. No greedy inbox or pulsing twitter feed to steal one’s attention. It’s quaintly anachronistic, just dealing with one piece of (neatly bound and finite) information at a time.

But reading a book demands a particular commitment from the reader: one where the mind has to work to create its own imagery. The act of converting hard text into vivid mental pictures will always be rungs above the passive absorption of video imagery. Focusing one’s attention on the intricacies of finely crafted pose and stimulating the mind to lose itself in the beauty of narrative, retracting entirely from the strictures of reality, stands in direct opposition to the superficial skim reading and information processing that is the modern norm. Sometimes I wonder if the words I rush through on screen even make it into my memory bank. It seems they simply float before me – an amorphous mesh of disconnected data that’s impossible to process – only to rebound off the walls of consciousness, unused and ineffective.

With every second person predicting the demise of print media, some of them with unmasked glee, it’s difficult to remain positive about the future of the book in its traditional form. But after catching a glimpse of that kid, witnessing the way in which he shut out everyone else on the bus, like nothing existed but the world between his fingertips, I’m confident that the art of deep reading will not be relegated to a time long past.

Image: Timeless Books by Lin Kristensen, creative commons

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