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Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction (theparisreview.org)
488 points by wormold on Feb 12, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 170 comments

I've come to love books intensely. Not only because I enjoy learning--before I read books, I found blogs to be great educators. I love books because they create time and space to be alone with a thought. It gives me time to consider things that I normally have no space for.

I remember Seth Godin saying once that every business book can be summarized in just a few pages but the book itself is a story. I think it goes beyond just that idea and is The Exercise in reinforcing ideas. Yes, you don't need to spend 10 hours to memorize an idea: _move fast and break things._ Yea, I get it.

But what does that actually mean? How do you actually implement that philosophy? How do you internalize it? How do you navigate situations where you will revert back to your old habit or philosophy? I think you have to spend 10 hours thinking about it and then taking actionable steps to implement it in order to make it useful. Teaching and writing are similar exercises that I have found helpful as a learning tool.

I only just stumbled upon why I like to read. It is likely very personal. But I have found that removing the distractions and habit of "horizontal reading" makes me happier. I'm looking forward to reading the referenced book by Birkerts.

(Aside: At times, I have found reading to be an excuse for not getting things done on my projects. _I just need to know more about x, y, and z before I start_. Ironically, the quest for knowledge can be distracting itself.)

I've recently been shown a lot of ads for a service called "blinkist" where the idea is to provide short summaries of non-fiction books and I think your comment captures why that is a very bad idea. Reading and capturing an idea takes time; it can't be properly substituted by a few minutes of "listening to crucial insights from leading thinkers while you’re on the go."

Their business model is in a way the complete opposite of the ideas in the article (although there is admittedly a difference between fiction and non-fiction books):

They show pictures of very busy business people that can't fit a book into their tight schedule; one of their ads said something along the lines of "80% of successful managers read at least 20 books per year" (which is probably just completely mixing up correlation and causation).

I don't think fiction can be shrunk down, but I think lots of non-fiction books can.

I'm thinking specifically of some books that I've read in the past couple of years that include:

  * Deep Work
  * Influence
  * Thinking Fast and Slow
  * Predictably Irrational
  * Getting Things Done
  * How to Win Friends and Influence People
I think all of these books suffer from the common pattern of present an idea then a bunch of examples that demonstrate the idea. I don't think you lose anything by ditching the examples. The core ideas are usually well stated and don't need clarification or demonstration.

That depends on how easy it's for you to learn and internalise a new idea.

You can understand the basic premise of these books by just reading the summary, but you need a lot of reinforcement to internalise the idea and want to execute on it. That's just how learning works.

What I find about general-interest nonfiction is not that it's longer than it needs to be to make its point, but that its point is often shallow or even wrong. Take Freakonomics. I thought it was a great read, but on reflection I think "there's a hidden economic reason for everything" is not a particularly useful observation. Indeed, it might be better stated that "there's no realm of human behavior that economists won't study." Or to take an older example, Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market. Published in 1999. Or The Great Depression of 1990, published in 1985. Or consider pretty much any book of diet advice. If it was published more than 15 years ago, it's very unlikely to agree with our current understanding of healthy diet. If it was published less than 15 years ago, we haven't debunked it yet.

I agree completely about non-fiction books.

There are certainly some fiction books that could use some shrinking down (For Exhibit A: Crossroads of Twilight -- book 10 of the Wheel of Time)

Now that you mention it, when I was reading Snow Crash I started skipping all the parts about ancient Sumerian language. All that he needed to do was establish that it worked as some kind of low-level system of the brain that could be tinkered with. Instead it felt like he spent 4 months researching ancient Sumer and by God he was going to not let that work go to waste.

I’m surprised you made it that far! I stopped reading after (I think it was) book 4 when I realized it could be summarized as “the company travels a few miles down a river for 800 pages”.

I believe Amazon found people tend to leave a non fiction book 100 pages from the end, so commissioned books 100 pages shorter than usual. A lot of it is about the books looking good and justifying its own price on the bookstore shelf.

It is nice when the spline is wide enough to have the title of the book on it in a decently big font. Probably a 3/4 inch book would working in most cases. I think many books are padded to reach a certain thickness. For non-fiction the publishers should just use thicker pages or put a bunch of blank pages at the back. Or just print the whole book over again.

Agreed in principle, and clearly there's no binary rule as every book will have its own level of "padding" / laboring the point, but I think the (O)OPs comment about "internalizing" is interesting, and personally I don't think a "tl;dr" of the books above wouldn't have had the same effect on me.

I agree that there's no binary rule. I read Sapiens and while it was a very long book, I don't think it could have been shorter.

BTW, laboring the point is precisely the phrase I was looking for but couldn't recall.

I tried Blinkist and have been disappointed. I tried a few of the daily freebies to see if it would educate and engage me to a degree that snack sized blog posts did not. Mostly it failed, and I still came away with that empty feeling of reading a short blog post.

That said, I struggle to find business books that are actually meaty enough to warrant reading more than the first chapter, as many of them seem to just have filler content (like many blog posts coincidentally). I'd love to find some way of identifying quality books in this genre.

Meanwhile, I try to carve out time for reading fiction because spending my day between HN, Reddit, random blog posts, etc. for my "news and info" can't be healthy for me, and I absolutely feel it in my attention span when trying to read an actual book.

I'd say it's mostly that our brain has ~resistance (ideas are complex network, and we all have our own). Taking time ensure deep massaging. Also being relaxed and not hurried is probably a more favorable state of mind to "massage". It also allows for daydreaming about related ideas and inspirations that the text causes. Pleasure breeds memory and understanding.

Where non-fiction books have a bad signal-to-noise ratio but still provide interesting insights begetting a summary, the best service can be done by a new motivated writer: trying to merely summarize a book squashes the "space" in which insight can deeply take place, as opposed to digesting the message and crafting a new message, an amalgam of ideas from another and another almost harmless business book, into something new, more dense and hopefully superseding. It's a natural evolution of the world's knowledge and books perfectly encapsulate the writer and reader's span and frame of mind leading to good analytical learning.

I can think of one non-fiction book in particular that benefits hugely from being read as a summary[0]. The E-Myth contains some great information, but the storytelling style it is written in is absolutely excruciating.

[0] https://sivers.org/book/EMythRevisited (I liked this summary - I found the link a few weeks ago on here. Thanks to https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=sivers)

Most non-fiction books that I've started and quit reading before 25% was because they felt like the content that could fit in a blog post had been stretched to over 300 pages.

I've found that summaries can give you quite a good idea of what the book is about in most cases. I read the full book if the summary interests me.

I wonder whether blinkist agrees with, but does it anyway because people want it.

Some people will want something just because you're trying to sell it to them though.

> I love books because they create time and space to be alone with a thought.

Spot on and cue page turns! Fan open a book and read horizontally. Have intermediate stops between chunks of text on two well-formatted pages and then transition to next. A second to soak in the content in between with time and space makes for a huge difference!

Scrolling animation can never achieve or serve this sort of efficiency!

I recently wrote an essay on some of the underlying psychophysics and varying outcomes of user interfaces (UX/UI) and how pagination with page turns (codex) helps in reading and forming memories[1].

[1] https://bubblin.io/concerns

I think you're confused about the meanings of the terms horizontal and vertical reading. The linked piece does not use the term "vertical reading" to mean reading on a vertically scrolling screen vs. reading printed pages in a book. Rather, the author uses "vertical reading" to mean deep reading as compared to shallow/broad reading:

> Birkerts coins his own terms: the deep, devotional practice of “vertical” reading has been supplanted by “horizontal” reading, skimming along the surface.

Yes, it means the same thing: skimming vs. soaking in with "duration state" in between. Unless one set of labels appear more valuable to you than the other…

This is completely orthogonal to scrolling vs pages, however.

Horizontal is typically orthogonal to vertical.

I liked the way Ray Bradbury writes about this in Fahrenheit 451. When you read books, you have time to think about it, re-read it and question it. Whereas while watching video, things move so fast that the decision is made up for you.

I agree with this. I've found that for myself, reading is much more effective because everything has to go through my inner monologue first, whereas videos circumvent that.

My inner monologue is where I really begin to understand / remember / question concepts.

That's also why I like writing difficult concepts down, because then I will be forced to put it through my inner monologue once more.

> I liked the way Ray Bradbury writes about this in Fahrenheit 451. When you read books, you have time to think about it, re-read it and question it. Whereas while watching video, things move so fast that the decision is made up for you.

You can literally watch a video at any pace you want.

I don't get romanticism around books and I can't help but eye roll when someone a) gushes about reading or b) waxes poetic about the past.

We have access to nearly every book, article, paper, video, song, etc. ever written or recorded within seconds. When I want to learn, the most efficient path is usually not through a single author. Why should it be? Why is it bad if we predominantly piece together information through multimedia? I don't get this article or the "reading club" mentality at all. Though I often hear it come out at parties as virtue signal.

> You can literally watch a video at any pace you want.

True in a literal sense, but irrelevant.

In order to change the pace a video, you need to actively interact with the video player; it's hard or impossible to get into a state of flow[1] if you need to constantly press buttons to pause, skip or replay parts of the video, change its speed, or find the specific second you want to analyze.

This affects the depth of reasoning about the concepts you're getting from the media. In a written text, you can naturally pause and reflect upon a paragraph, or re-read recent paragraphs only by moving the eyes up, slowing down at particularly difficult or interesting sections.

This state of mind of "intense mental concentration" when reading is a good basis for learning and reflection, and can be combined a more powerful range of options when reading; with video you can also get into that state, but then the video moves forward uniformly, and the pace at which you're confronted with the concepts is defined by the media, not your mental processes.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

Maybe you just represent (echo) the hubris of the new century? The past doesn't need any more romanticising or contemporary poetry than it needs new Mozarts, Shakespeares, Balzacs and Einsteins, whereas the twenty-first century is in dire search of true genius, for all the torrent of information being churned and churned. The ratio of intelligent study decays as the numbers of daily YouTube views sharply rise. It astounds me that people really believe progress is being made on the habits of deep intellectual work with new gadgets.

Yes, consuming audio and video for information has improved in recent years. It is now practical to change the playback speed and return to a particular point using transcripts. While these tools are not universally available, they are certainly gaining traction for educational content. On the other hand, it is not quite the same as reading a text for the reasons described by TuringTest.

> We have access to nearly every book, article, paper, video, song, etc. ever written or recorded within seconds.

While I have some reservations about digital texts, I agree that the situation is far better than it was 30 years ago. I fear that many people have forgotten how long it used to take to find information in the past, never mind obtain it, never mind the financial cost.

As for those reservations, they are mostly the product of the digital environment that we have created and accepted. They have very little to do with access to access to or the nature of books. The article hinted at this when it mentioned greed. Common dedicated e-readers are designed to sell books as much as designed to read books. Most websites are designed to deliver advertising as much as delivering content. General purpose devices present a continuous stream of distractions that leave us victim to our own vices. It does not have to be that way, but it takes a proactive approach for it to be otherwise.

We would be better served if we acknowledged the shortcomings of electronic texts (as well as audio and video delivery) then took the initiative to address them.

You need to read some literature. Information is not knowledge or understanding.

Funny you say that, I was an English major for a brief while in college. I switched to a creative writing minor before the end of my first year.

For whatever it was my English professors had, it was my creative writing professors with real acclaim and ability.

What I want out of books is to be able to work them into a sequential feed workflow. I don't think it's likely to happen without hacks in my lifetime due to DRM.

But it would be great to get chapters of books woven in between long and short form textual content whose sources are personally curated. If someone thinks they can either work out a deal with Amazon or otherwise get around the DRM issue in a commercial product, drop me a line, I'd love to build V1.

Think about it, all text content, sliced and diced for maximum consumability. It just might make feed readers sexy again.

I have no idea what anything you wrote means. Can you explain in everyday language, assuming I'm your grandma?

Why do you want to slice chapters from separate books together and insert 'textual content' inbetween them?

Books, sliced by chapter, in an RSS feed reader.

So I can read, say, a NYT article, then chapter one of a book, then maybe a blog post, then chapter one of a different book, then a long-form article, then chapter two of the first book.

you are missing the point of reading anything long form

I see what he's getting at.

Last night I watched an episode of True Detectives. Tonight I'll look for a hockey game on TV. Tomorrow I might watch some Game of Thrones. I also have a couple episodes of Better Call Saul on my DVR. I watch (and read) the thing that appeals to me at the time I want it.

If that's how we're looking at it, wouldn't that be the same essential idea as leaving a bookmark and juggling a few books at once?

Of course, but if you are lost in a good book, you don't notice when one chapter ends and another beings. You are lost for hours, and don't think about changing to some other article or paper.

Sure. And with the Netflix model you can binge on episode after episode. There are a lot of similarities.

Another benefit would be the same UX for all text content consumption.

Are you saying you never put a book down and pick it back up later?

Yeah you sound incredibly ADHD.

If I was does that mean it wouldn't be worth building an app to help?

I really like this idea and it overlaps slightly with my side project. I'd love to give it a try even if it's just with DRM free content initially.

Sadly, it doesn't even slightly interest me if I can't insert anything I have on my pile into the feed. It's an all-or-nothing thing. When I get interested enough, I'll probably do something really hacky.

The great Roman emporer, Marcus Aurelius, says the following in the beginning of his book, Meditations:

To read attentively—not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.”

"heh, marcus, we meet again"

-- everybody since

These days I take reading not as a data input but as a personal game. Authors ideas are mostly a way to let me have my own little intellectual creative game. It avoid reading from authority, passive absorption, weakening of thinking.

I completely agree re: non-fiction. This is why I started creating 15 minute shorts that summarise the key concepts for busy, time-conscious readers for less.


I also think there is a lot of therapeutic power embedded in literature (fiction and nonfiction) and I've created some 15 minute literary guides too for lots of different issues and interests: https://www.booktherapy.io/collections/literary-guides

I found this experience to be very true while reading Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People". It was easy to just look at the table of contents and immediately know all the steps - but only by reading the whole chapter could I actually internalize how to put each tenet into practice and what it looked like in reality.

How do you learn from a book, genuinely?

Do you sit down and try to read and understand as much as you can? Or do you just read during your downtime?

I think you should mention that you are talking about non novel non fiction stuff, like self improving and technical books, which is an entirely different world of reading (as in more learning than pleasure), at least that's what I understood from you.

I'm actually working on an app specifically to address this problem.


It builds on the idea of 'bookmarks' and we have a new take on them called 'pagemarks' which is basically a box that spans multiple pages.

This way you can keep track of the parts of the book you've read and jump around.

I like reading multiple textbooks, articles, etc and go back and forth often.

This allows me to easily suspend and resume.

I worked on a proof of concept about 6 months ago and I've been expanding it in my spare time.

You can read about it here:


Polar is free and Open Source btw.

It blew up on HN a few months ago:


I'm about to re-announce as we're just in the process of porting it to the web to make it more accessible to people (mobile, tablets, chrome OS, etc.).

It goes FAR behind this though and supports document management, offline, and supports capturing web pages for offline usage and archival.

Additionally it supports annotation so you can take any page and add highlights, comments and flashcards.

Another tool to help increase focus while reading on-screen: http://www.beelinereader.com. Testing by CNET showed that people are 35% more likely to finish an article when reading with this turned on. Would be interested to talk about collaboration, if you’re also looking to help folks focus! [username] at email-service-starting-with-the-same-letter.com

Very cool! At least for me, so much of my reading is done on my mobile devices (e.g, iPhone, iPad) that not supporting those via an app is pretty much a deal killer for me. But if I could have one place to read PDF files, saved websites (e.g., like Pocket; btw, Pocket integration would seem to make a lot of sense for Polarized) where annotations/highlights are also stored in the cloud (say, in Dropbox), and I could access this on the go on a mobile device, I would certainly use your service.

Mobile + web is coming... I'm also working on different ways to read while mobile which I think will be amazingly valuable.

I'm going to keep these a surprise though.

I like to read on my laptop and not mobile though... but maybe that will change.

Awesome, thanks for the share! Would be great to integrate functionality from Zotero

> ...a new take on them called 'pagemarks' which is basically a box that spans multiple pages.

Not wanting to belittle what you've done as it sounds like a really useful product, but this sounds like exactly the same way I use "highlights" on the Kindle.

I wanted to make something like this for a long time. Thanks.

Am I mistaken or there is no support for bookmarks / table of contents in the pdf reader? This makes reading a lot more difficult.

As I read this story, some moving advertisements start along the top and sides. After ten seconds, a floating bar covers the text. After a few more, a modal dialog. Then the 'share me now' buttons, obscuring the text. Then I leave.

Too few websites offer an experience for someone to read the content, and so we will see "Reading Online Content in the Age of Constant Distraction" in HackerNews.

Yes, I wasn't sure if the distractions were there to prove a point or if it was just ironic that the site was bombarding its own article with distractions.

Try ublock origin with a lot of filters.

How can you live in 2019 without an ad blocker? I'm on that page and never got any ads/intrusions.

Maybe they are using an iphone or something. Adblockers don't resolve the root of the problem!

Firefox reader mode kills all of this.

this! x1000

I joined local book clubs to help combat this. The book clubs help me get motivated to read books. I don't always finish them, and sometimes work or other commitments prevent me from going out and discussing the book, but it does help motivate me to sit down and read a book again (often when I'm in line waiting for things is a good time for me to make progress on the book. I try to do that instead of checking Facebook updates, but I also read before going to bed also).

The main problem with this, is they often choose books that I'm not that interested in reading. Sometimes I plow through it anyway and sometimes I just skip that month. That's why I'm in multiple groups, so I can see what each group is reading and pick the one or two books that look the most interesting from those.

But sometimes the books I'm really into. Like I got excited when The Devil and the White City was one of them, and one of them is currently reading the Deep Work book, which I'm finding interesting and wanting to incorporate some of its ideas in my own life.

I joined local book clubs to help combat this. There is no need to be so adversarial! There is absolutely nothing wrong with checking your Facebook/Reddit/Twitter/HN/Register/./G+(lol) feeds. Reading a novel is not mutually exclusive to that, in the same way that your work and home lives are intertwined but still separate (probably).

It sounds to me from your comment that you need to break away from your book club and go your own way and do your own thing. They have piqued your interest and pointed out a way but that way is now yours. I have no idea where you are in the world but if you have a local lending library within reach, that might be a good place to consider visiting. I'm from the UK and what little is left of our library system after much cutting of budgets (generally outside Laaaaaandon) is still legendary but sadly being diminished by London/Cardiff/Edinburgh/Belfast focused knob-ends.

There is no greater pleasure to be had than from a damn good book and very few books are not damn good. OK, there are one or two other things that are quite fun ...

I also read plenty of Facebook/Reddit/HN feeds still, I'm not trying to eliminate them. Combat was kind of a hyperbole I guess. I'm not declaring war against reading articles online.

But I have found that for all the interesting articles online, if I reflect back on them after a year, I can remember approximately 0% of what I read, while I can remember at least which books I've read and something interesting about them, so I wonder just how useful reading those articles are. Hasn't stopped me from doing it, but I don't think it's quite so useful (I'm not really counting tutorials in this, where I actually gain tangible skills by following what I read, though).

And I still buy and read my own books. I just wish I could finish a book, go someplace for dinner and discuss it with a few people afterwards like I can with the book club books. It is also harder for me to finish books I want to read, though, because I don't have that looming deadline reminding me. I suppose I could set my own deadlines, but I know from past experience that I don't treat those seriously.

It's the same thing for me with game design. I do still design game in my spare time, but I get a looot more work done when I know there's a looming game convention or a competition deadline coming up. Same with writing. I get the vast majority of my new writing done during the month of November each year, during Nanowrimo. The rest of the year moves at a crawl. It's that comradery and not-imposed-by-me deadline that helps keep me motivated.

I recently discovered I score very low on VVIQ. Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire. I don't have full on Aphantasia. But listening to how for other people reading a book is like watching a movie in their heads blows my mind. Being able to imagine with any level of depth sounds pretty amazing. As a kid I never really played pretend or was into fiction. But I'm curious that possibly long form reading is on the decline is associated with lower abilities to imagine in the general public?

FWIW, I love reading and fiction, but am also quite low on vividness. Imagination never really equally visual images to me, I can still imagine scenes without seeing them, if that makes sense.

Poetry, on the other hand....there are some types I like, but there are certain poems that seem to be made only to make imagery. Can't get into much of it.

I'm similar. I spent my childhood cycling through endless numbers of used fiction paperbacks, but my visual imagination caps out at, roughly, "somebody making a watercolor painting without any small brushes". I can manage more than that, but only with extensive repetition and basically memorizing a particular image by rote.

Oh wow, I didn't know that was a thing but that describes me perfectly. I can sort of picture faces to some extent, but trying to visualize a house or a scene is almost impossible to me. I find it frustrating when trying to think of a "memory palace" because I can't even think about what the front door of the palace would look like, let along intricate places for things within it.

Your "memory palace" could simply be a row of doors where different sounds come from each one.

Or a jungle where you have to crawl and climb over obstacles to move around.

Imagination isn't just visual. Just because you can't "picture" something in your head doesn't mean you have no imagination.

That's really interesting! I'm probably just using my lack of visual imagination as a cop out. Do you have any examples of resources for constructing such a "memory palace"?

A trick with the memory palace is to use place you know well such as your bedroom. Then, with practice, you will learn how to build image that are vivid to your mind and easier to remember (it is perfectly normal if at first you build images that are not easily retained, you will learn from the image you do retain).

I mean, the level of CGI and game engine textures we have is almost indistinguishable from real life. Perhaps because we have access to the super high-fidelity, interactive simulations, we've lost the practice of imagining so vividly?

I grew up with unlimited screen time starting at age 2 and used the majority of it to play 3d video games. I score very high on the VVIQ.

My story is antidotal, but your hypothesis is also not backed by data. I'd like to purpose a counter hypothesis: spending time in interactive 3d worlds requires building internal maps of the environment. Exercising these portions of the brain improves Visual Imagery Vividness.

There are lots of unforeseen consequences of screen time. I suspect this isn't one of them.

I'll second this hypothesis. Also unlimited 3d world time: I have _vivid_ recollections of very large maps, spaces, etc.

I can remember every WoW raid environment, every detail of every CS map I played, etc.

This is the fear as I watch my 6-yr old son enjoy oodles of video time. But what to do? Create an equally damaging anxiety of self-denial? What an age, for better or for worse.

As someone who's always had limited visualization ability, I feel kind of offended that you're labeling this like a personal failing. I have to imagine someone with full-blown aphantasia would be even more upset.

Sorry you got that impression, I mean modern humans, not any particular group with a diagnosed condition.

Didn’t mean to single out people with aphasia or any other similar disorder at all.

My wife and I recently embarked on the 'Great Books' list from "How to read a Book" [1]. It's a nice contrast to the more scattershot reading that happens online.

If you're interested in how technology might cause self-interruptions that make things like sitting down with a book more difficult, I recommend checking out "The Distracted Mind". [2]

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Read_a_Book

2: http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/distracted-mind

I spent a year at a “Great Books” college whose program Adler helped found. It was a really amazing luxury to be able to spend so much time on it (I left after freshman year, so I only got through the Greeks).

Ultimately, St John’s generates a lot of lawyers and humanities grad students, but not a whole lot else without extra pre-grad school to school to get some of the STEM prereqs out of the way. I love that the school generates humanities scholars, but it’s not my bag, so I moved on.

If I had the money, I’d love to go back and finish when I retire, but at 40 I’m already not as smart as I was in college, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be too dumb to be a useful classmate when I retire!

If you haven’t gotten to Euclid yet, do yourself a favor and get the Heath translations with his notes. A few of them are really, really hard for people trained in late second-millennia mathematics to be able to get through without some hints.

I attended St. John's College's Graduate Institute, spending four summers (8 weeks each) reading and discussing a shorter version of the undergraduate reading list, and took an M.A. degree in the Liberal Arts thirty years after my Computer Science degree.

It was well worth it for me, at age 54, and for participants who were retirement age. At 40 you may be feel less smart than when you were younger, but you're very likely more mature and a better reader.

St. John's offers week-long Summer Classics sessions, which convey a lot of the same experiences of reading and discussion:


I read "The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life" a while back and that led to "The Master and Margarita" which is now one of my favourite books :-)

I think distractions are just the beginning of our issues, a much bigger factor on how much I can read is Time.

As we become adults, with responsibilities Time is incredibly hard to find. Big readers tend to be productive people and as such the more active and busy we are the harder it is to sit down and read. This might sound like a straight forward problem but I find myself bookmarking great articles or writing down great books I heard about only to never really find the Time to go back and read them.

As a little shameless self promotion this problem of not having enough time to read led me to build an App that lets me listen to any article from the web. It converts the article to Audio using some amazing open advancements in AI/ML. Now when I’m standing on the train with a coffee in my hand and holding a pole with the other I can get through a ton of this content from the web distraction free.

You can check the app out here: https://articulu.com

> but I find myself bookmarking great articles or writing down great books I heard about only to never really find the Time to go back and read them.

Try replacing “can’t find time” with “not a priority”. It means the same in practice and makes for a huge shift in perception and your own personal feekings towards stuff. Especially in the guilt department.

You have more important things to do and that’s okay. When you come across a book that’s important enough you will magically have time for it. Priorities are fun like that.

Probably a lot of people just get lured in by social media, video games, Netflix, etc and then spend far more time on these things than they would actually like. I doubt many people are consciously prioritizing their web surfing or video game time, but it just turns out that way since these things are designed to be habit forming.

I agree and saying "not a priority" instead of "don't have time" helps with that too.

"Sorry reading books is not a priority"

Wait ... then what is a priority? Social media? Screw that!!

And it prompts you to [try to] do better with your time.

Remember when we used to read books a few pages at a time on the pooper instead of scrolling through twitter or hackernews? Good times.

Haha yeah, absolutely. I've limited my social media use to HN only for a while now (mainly because I feel it is one of the few sites left where you can just have a civil discussion without things getting too political) and I feel I'm significantly happier and more productive now than I was a few years ago. Of course many other things have changed in that timeframe, but I don't really ever see myself using Facebook or other popular social media again. Quitting all that is quite liberating.

One of my plans when I retire is to read a LOT of books. Yet one day I read a post by a HN contributor where he said, "But nothing's really stopping me from doing that NOW" and he then embarked on regularly walking to the park and reading. As a result I've been trying to do the same thing, because when you start computing numbers and realize you only enough time left in life to read a paltry number of books[1], you learn to prioritize really quickly.

[1] https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html

I think that's great. That said, I've tried audio (books) and it's just not the same as reading (print). Reading, to me, seems to engage the mind in a deeper way. It is, nearly by its nature, more proactive and participatory. On the other hand, watching and listening is far more passive. You don't work to consume, you just wait for it to come to you.

For example, when you read you can pause, re-read, etc. On the other hand, who watches the news (for example) and uses pause and/or 30 second rewind? Not to get off topic but my personal theory is this is why journalism today is so shoddy - because it can be. It's just an endless stream and no one is pausing long enough to say "Hey! Wait a minute!!"

I completely get this.

Between family, my full time job, side projects.. I had no choice but to listen to some of these books as Audio books.. I ended up pretty much listening to 25+ audio books this year.. the only way to make the content stick is to:

1) take a ton of notes

2) do exactly as you say, rewind over and over until you can mark it down.

These are the next few features I want to add to this thing, taking notes and rewinding quickly and bookmarking snippets precisely because of your point that audio requires a little more work to retain. Still worth it though, I would have never been able to read that many books this year given how busy I am.

Ultimately I will concede that it will never beat reading, but when we have no time or are commuting? This, in my opinion, is the next best thing for busy people.

I probably listen to ~40 audio books a year and I'd love something that allowed me to review the text of what I had just listened to and re-read and highlight specific parts.

Also something that displays diagrams/maps sensibly would be good too!

Edit: And by "love" I mean "pay" - I'd happily pay the same amount as my Audible subscription for a service that helped with this.

Two more things to add...

1) It was recommended to me at one point to listen at a faster playback speed. Evidently, the novelty forces the brain to focus more, and thus have better retention.

2) What about a audio effect for highlighting? Some sort of filter? Or perhaps more bass? Something to say "you liked this bit before"?

I think we are definitely already planning the first one.

The second one is super interesting.. I’ll have to think about it a bit but it’s a great idea for sure.

Could you...hit button, have it rewind some fixed amount of time (10 secs a tap?) and then email / store a text transcript of that segment?

__That__ might be something I'd like to try.

For sure planning the rewinds by second but even more I’m planning sentence rewinds so one could rewind sentence by sentence and even saving snippets of one or more sentences..

I hadn’t thought about emailing that though, it’s a solid idea thank you.

I still buy paper books, mainly because the library frowns on highlighting and notes in the margins :)

Fwiw, I've been wanting to do a website where I - and others? - could share the highlighted bits (in an easy on the eye pull quote-y sorta way). More or less my personal notes in public. Kinda like Cliff Notes meets meme-y inspiration type quotes. But also as a sample of the book for those curious about reading it. That's why I'd want a transcript. For my records, so to speak.

I should ask mention, 95% of what I read is non-fiction.

To be clear, I don't care if the text is the __exact__ bit I want to save or not. A bit too much on either end is time. I can always edit (if necessary). My immediate want / need would simply be the capture.

Personally, I've found my problem is more "feeling like I don't have time" rather than actually not having time. You can always find things to do to fill each moment, but at least for me, the majority of those things are neither necessary (such as writing this post) nor am I doing them as efficiently as possible. I find through regularly reviewing how I'm spending my time, I'm always finding things to cut out that are a waste of my time or finding ways to be more efficient so that I can focus on the things that are actually important to me. Possibly I am just more distractible than average so I have to keep pulling myself back in to focus, but I don't think so.

I think most people do have time but its filled with other activities like checking social media and watching videos. To find time to read a book requires dropping something else.

While it's not what article is about, but amount of distraction you see even just to read this article is insane: https://i.imgur.com/xHRmvuJ.png

How apt that this is posted today! I've been tracking my reading progress on the Google SRE Workbook via Beeminder, and today I am derailing my goal because I am far behind. [1]

I started tracking my progress because I wanted to see how much I can actually read in a day on a regular basis without losing focus and abandoning it, I even got a Kindle because it was on sale.

Long story short, 10 pages a day was what I settled on as a reasonable goal, and here I am not keeping up with that.

I actually should mention too that there is a person on GitHub[2] who converts texts to epub/mobi as a hobby, and that's how I saved $50 on my copy of the SRE book and workbook, Kindle edition, which are freely available in HTML format, thanks Google[3]!

[1]: https://www.beeminder.com/yebyenw/srebook

[2]: https://github.com/captn3m0/google-sre-ebook

[3]: https://landing.google.com/sre/books/

Ten pages a day is a lot! I'm an avid for-fun reader, and ten or fifteen pages is about what I manage while reading during breakfast, lunch, and sometimes for a few minutes before bed. That's with pretty lightweight pop-non-fiction as well. Maybe it would be better to reduce the goal to something consistently manageable, and don't beat yourself up!

I changed the whole strategy today. Kindle reports % done and some bizarre "book location" number which is like an order of magnitude bigger than pages, so it's easier to report on and comprehend my "percent" location in the book.

Beeminder is all about beating yourself up. But derailing is not failing. You don't fail if you set a new goal and start again. I decided that I will get from my current location at 32% completed to 100% completed in about 7 weeks.

This is conservative to account for the fact that I should be able to read other books in this time, as they strike my fancy! It will probably also help that I no longer have to count the number of pages, now that I've switched to tracking percent. I did the math and the new goal is a little less than 10 pages per day now. Thanks for the encouragement!

Something I've found to be exceptionally good at helping with reading (I've been reading ~50 books a year for the past 5 years, on top of a full time job and family) is to use Goodreads - it gives you those short term endorphins when you can mark a book as read and can help it compete with all the other offerings of the world that reward you more hormonally.

Alternatively, if you don't want to use the tool, I would recommend getting a nice notepad to write in some short book reviews, which will give you your endorphins as you fill the book up more. And you get the additional benefit of being able to look back through your notes to see what you thought of various books and how your thought x time ago.

Did a small survey last year on this point and discovered that while technology might sound distracting people are actually spending more time reading/viewing stuff they like more lot more than before.

We found that among teens for example very few people read anything from news websites very rarely but almost every single teen had read at least one article in depth on very niche topic that appealed to them. (For example reading about affairs for their favorite pop star). Most teens performed very poorly when they were given 1 hour and asked to prepare a presentation on "any american hero".

Totally anecdotal story / corner case:

I was a terrible reader growing up, I had ADD before the days when they diagnosed that.

My son also has ADD and strangely, he is an avid reader. I've caught him reading two books at once (both in his lap) and swapping between them and he was comprehending them (I did some Q&A).

At least on the very surface to me that might mean that reading is not necessarily antithetical to someone who is prone to distraction / lack of focus .... or a distraction heavy world.

We've seen history full of predictions what the phone, or video games, or computers would do to seemingly related technologies, and not been good at predicting the result.

This is called hyperfocusing (AKA the zone) and it's a typical characteristic of people with ADD. I have it pretty bad and I almost flunked out of school because I would spend all day reading enormous serial fantasy novels (wheel of time FTW!).

OT, but is there by any chance a series similar to wheel of time, or that captured you in a similar way, which you would recommend? Havent found anything quite like it, but that might be because of nostalgia and my fond memories of reading it as a teen.

If you are looking for sheer scale, can recommend Steven Erikson's Malazan family (around 36 novels set in the same world; starting with the Malazan Book of the Fallen) though the atmosphere is much bleaker.

Another recommendation would be Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere multi-series (Mistborn, Stormlight Archive), currently in progress, closer to WoT thematically.

When I was a teenager I loved the series that started with sword of shanarra, but going back and reading those novels as an adult mostly makes me cringe. :)

That's impressive!

I agree, I think where distraction comes into play is an inhibitor to actually get started reading.

This article goes into the difference between horizontal and vertical reading.

Do you have a paper or a link to read this study?

This article resonates a lot with me. I have always found great pleasure in reading but lately my computer and phone steals all attention and I genuinely feel less smart because of it.

It's a big reason why we're launching https://mypapermag.com/ It's an app (web only for now: vue/django) where you select great long reads selected from our partners, but the important thing is that you actually get them in print in your personalized magazine every n weeks. This way you get the distraction free experience of a regular magazine, the freedom of choice of the web, the best articles from our partners and the best tech for reading (paper) in one place. It's what we're trying to achieve at least, still in private beta and only in France for now but please let me know if you want to try it out or if you have any feedback, andre@mypapermag.com </ShamelessSelfPromotion>

I forgot to add that if you're interested in how our reading is changing, Maryanne Wolf's research is great. Her book 'Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World' gives a great overview of a diverse way of looking at reading. (I haven't read 'Proust and the Squid' yet, by the same author, but I think it touches on similar topics)

According to Wolf, our "reading circuits" are changing on a neurological level, affecting reasoning, critical thinking and even empathy.

On the other hand were getting better at skim reading, quickly sorting through mountains of lower value information.

This article in the Guardian gives a great summary: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-r...

Another good article on the topic, if you happen to prefer French, from Usbec & Rica: https://m.usbeketrica.com/article/a-plus-vous-lisez-en-diago...

(Disclaimer: Both The Guardian and Usbek & Rica are supplying articles for our platform)

For me, eInk readers, and especially smartphones, boosted the amounts I've read (which were substantial to begin with).

For eInk, it was mostly because I could take it to more places, stuffed with many books. When you can get through a book in 2-3 days, a 2-week vacation needs quite a few!

But smartphones were the real gift. Now I have all my books right there in my pocket whenever I go, so in any situation where I have to wait (lines etc), I can just whip it up and continue reading. Even if it's 10-15 minutes at a time, it all adds up. This doesn't work well for technical books because of interruptions, but it's perfect for fiction.

Another nice things about phones for reading is OLED screens. Because they're "perfectly black", I find it to be the best low-light reader for night reading in the dark, before sleep.

Being able to change the font size, the screen brightness and to a lesser extent hue (bluish <-> amber) has led to the death of physical books for me. That and a kickstand phone case.

Oh yes, I totally forgot about that part for low-light reading. Blue light filters are awesome when properly done.

I've largely stopped reading fiction books for the opposite reason. I can't put them down until they're finished or I fall asleep at 4am with book in hand (and alarm set to 6am for work).

Long form news articles and technical books consumed in pomodoro-sided is what I have to get by on.

I would finish reading this article, but first let me scroll the Reddit front page once more.

Looks like an interesting article. Lemme check out the comments first.

Last year I cancelled my Audible subscription for much of the same reason: when listening to an audiobook it is too easy to get distracted, but reading a book is different. With an audiobook you feel like since your hands are free, you can go do something else like gym or household chores, and finding yourself no longer catching up with the audiobook. And that's not to mention you don't feel like you are in control: the narrator decides the pace, not you. But with a book, it's much harder to get distracted and thus easier to get into "the realm of duration."

Since cancelling Audible, I started buying paper books on Amazon and I have experienced much better focus, and much greater enjoyment from the books I've read.

I never understood audiobooks to begin with. To me, reading is an intimate, personal thing. Listening to some narrator is more like being the spectator in some piece of performance art. When I read, I want to be left alone with my thoughts. I don't hear a voice when reading (like some people do, apparently) and I definitely don't want to hear some guy or gal actually speaking the words!

More importantly, I want to read at my own pace, not someone else's. I often go back and re-read recent paragraphs, for example.

> Listening to some narrator is more like being the spectator in some piece of performance art.

This is exactly why I read my books, but also listen to podcasts. When I need my imagination to run I need rest, time, and quietude. When I want to listen to an interview, I do that (riding my bike to school, for example).

Good point. Do note I was speaking about reading books for pleasure. I definitely need peace and quiet. However, this doesn't apply for articles or blog posts, I can read those anywhere, on any format. I can definitely see myself listening to a podcast (though in that case, my problem is that I'm impatient and want to fast forward it). I guess my imagination is not as engaged for them!

I would never, ever, enjoy listening to a novel in audio format.

It’s very interesting to me that you read without hearing a voice in your head reading each word. I tried to read your comment without requiring the voice in my head but I wasn’t able to do so. Can you elaborate a little more on what reading is like for you with no voice in your head?

I do not speed read, unlike what the other comment mentions. Your assumption is correct: this is my standard mode of reading. I'm actually not a very fast reader (though I used to be when I was a teenager!), and I like to re-read paragraphs and sometimes even go back a few pages and re-read something I liked. This is also why e-readers, as convenient as they otherwise are, are not my preferred medium when reading novels: they make it uncomfortable to go back and forth. A printed book actually has the best UI for me :)

I can't explain what it feels like to read like this. I don't hear a voice except when my attention is drawn to this, like right now: I'm definitely hearing my voice when I type this, but that's because I'm thinking about it. As soon as I forget this discussion, I'll go back to silent reading mode.

Also keep in mind that right now I'm hearing my own voice, not some narrator's. I'd find it extremely distracting if it was someone else's voice, e.g. if it was a woman's voice if the writer was a woman.

Ah I see! I also only hear my own voice when reading (I think this is the norm). When I'm really absorbed in the book I forget that I'm "hearing" it but I no doubt am actually hearing it so it's interesting to see that isn't the case for everyone :)

Speed reading is basically reading without hearing a voice (subvocalization). I can do it but personally find it more draining and less enjoyable than regular reading. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subvocalization#Comparison_to_...

That's a really interesting link, thanks for that. The parent comment made it sound as if this was their normal method of reading which is pretty fascinating. I wonder how common it is.

It is indeed my normal method of reading, and I don't speed read.

PS: note that as I mentioned in another comment, now that my attention has been drawn to it, I am indeed "listening" to my thoughts as I type this. Maybe this is going all the time and I simply don't notice it normally. What I definitely do not hear is some kind of narrator voice reading carefully enunciated words to me (as an audiobook would be). That would be distracting to me.

I do this too. In fact, I get very bored when I (sub)vocalise the words. Reading without voice is way less tiring and usually faster. It's like you just absorb the raw concepts, the feelings, the nuances uh.. just like when you read something aloud, but then you eh.. don't do that?

The thing I find is hardest about sitting and reading a book is the quietness and being essentially alone with my own thoughts.

If I'm sitting watch a film / netflix etc, there is noise and that seems to distract my brain from going to dark places.

It's like I'll be reading a page and then by the end of the page I've taken nothing in and my brain is forcing me to think about stuff I don't want to think about. Intrusive thoughts like you suck as a person,you're fat, you're ugly, why do your friends like you? You suck at your job etc.

I think this is the same reason why I struggle to sleep, just being alone with my thoughts trying to sleep ends up putting me in a bad place.

It sucks because I used to love reading.

Yes, this sucks. It can be quite hard to see and understand, that these thoughts are your own activity, you are enabling these thoughts.

You can't control if thoughts pop up, but you have control if you are following these thoughts, if you continue them.

It might be very difficult to see the difference between the pop up of a thought and its following, because if you always follow a thought you get used to it, it just automatically happens.

It can be quite hard to get rid of this habit, it takes time and energy, but the more you try to not automatically follow thoughts - but only if you really want to - the less thoughts will randomly pop up.

I have the same problem. It's definitely the worst effect of information overload - being alone with my own thoughts is anxiety inducing.

I've also noticed that on the days I spend too much time scrolling through Reddit and skimming the news, I have this background feeling of restlessness.

I'm trying to fix this by resisting the urge to look at my phone whenever I have a spare moment - like waiting in line, or when taking the elevator. Boredom shouldn't feel scary.

Meditation and going for walks (without bringing my phone) also help.

I would suggest that these are probably not thoughts you should be trying to ignore. What is at the root of your mind telling you that you suck as a person? Do you work with a therapist? It may help.. If you can face into these and change whatever it is you need to then maybe you can start reading and sleeping again, plus your life will be better in just about every way!

I know this,

You might want to try meditation, it let’s your brain dump these thoughts and then be more present.

Dude, this is not normal. Don't think you have to accept that. Talk to somebody.

I read on the train when I commute to and from work. The train is frightfully busy, rammed full, noisy, uncomfortable, but as soon as I open my book it's just me and the page. It's my favourite part of the day, my own little world. The only problem is the trip seems too short, I lift my head after what seems like a few minutes and I'm already pulling into my station.

I definitely agree with most of the points in the article. I've always been an avid reader and I find that this has enriched my life and my ability to think and reason about the world around me.

However, I find that the dig at amazon and e-books is definitely unwarranted(Or at least overblown). As a denizen of the third world, Amazon and the Kindle have been a lifeline to me. It's pretty much impossible to find anything that isn't bestseller trash in bookstores where I live. The selection is limited only to what might sell to the largest possible audience/lowest common denominator. Being able to get books on demand, electronically and cheap has been the only way I've been able to keep up my reading habit in the face of tightening time and budget constraints(2 kids, a job, etc...)

My approach to this is to make peace with the fact that I don't need to nor can read every interesting thing out there. So I choose 2-3 articles which seem promising (mostly based on a hunch and how people here react to them), send them to kindle using this website[1] during work and then reading on my way home. Personally, I have noticed, reading a few articles around topics are also better for retention compared to reading just the discussion around the same topics and 10 more. Still haven't figured out how/when to read books, but we'll get there some day :)


Medium matters. For in-depth, “digital” reading the only thing I have which works for me is my Kindle.

It’s distractionfree by design, and that’s why I love it. It’s definitely not just another redundant screen.

A smartphone can be equally distraction free if you block notifications (a single button on modern phones). Kindle goes fullscreen, so all you see is the book text.

Yeah but Kindle != web. And that is huge bummer for me! I generally prefer reading everything online, or not read at all.

I don't know if this addresses your issue (whether it's about the content, or about e.g. being able to use hyperlinks), but Kobo ereaders come with a version of Pocket preinstalled, so when you see an interesting web page on your computer, you can send it to your ereader with the press of a button. Apparently there's something similar for Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/sendtokindle/

Instapaper integrates with the Send to Kindle feature and will mail you a "newspaper" with all of the articles you've saved to Instapaper in the last week. It's fantastic.

This is really interesting to me. Do you know why you think (feel?) this way?

It is because web is the go-to resource for me, whether it's wikipedia or readings blogs or youtube or netflix——I don't use apps at all. Any hardware that doesn't take me to web is—well it doesn't exist for me.

I've been an avid reader since I was seven years old - I stopped in college (almost completely), but it was during my internship and job that I started reading vociferously again.

Nowadays after I finish the book, I try to review the books I've read on Instagram in the form of a post or a story - some people go to the extent of unfollowing me (seeing it as a stupid use case for the service), but some people I know IRL have also started reading the same books I finish.

Not every distraction is a force for evil.

i think you can find "deep time" on the internet. the internet is just a medium, and its speed is only one of many factors that make using it distracting. i've read things blogs or wikis that have taken hours of intense focus to grok. my point is that the dichotomy of books and the internet doesn't seem particularly valuable, while "deep time" vs "shallow time" is.

I would argue that while you can find deep works on the internet, it’s still a medium that encourages shallower works than the printing press did.

Isn't it ironic that an article with this theme should be published on a site that - if you allow scripts - has not one but two horrible animated pop-ups (slide in from right - trying to get you to sign up for their newsletter - and centred overlay trying to sell you their t-shirts).

The author certainly appears to have chosen their title well. <sigh>

I read more books on paper now than I ever did pre-internet. Because of the far greater ease of requesting a library book now.

Now anytime I hear of a good book, I look it up on the online catalog and, because all the libraries in the county are linked, the choice is bigger than ever. I just request a few books and have them delivered to my local library.

I have different experiences with reading than most. When I'm reading and notifications come in, I ignore them as distractions, much like one would shake off and ignore an annoying fly. I don't know whether the fact that I'm usually listening rather than reading (I use a screenreader) makes any difference.

If this interests you, there is a book-length treatment of the same subject:


Constant distraction happens only if you chose it. Chose it to not happen.

Lately, I have been finding the physicality of reading a book especially pleasing when so much of my daily work, communication, and distraction are spent in front of a screen.

Literally have a book in one hand and my phone to type this.

Literally? (left eyebrow raises slightly/right eye twitches slightly, almost imperceptibly)

I presume you mean that you have a book written (a tattoo perhaps) on the palm of your hand. It is either a very short book or you have one of those new fangled micro-fiche-tats.


In this case, social media directly makes reading difficult due to the share icons obscuring the left side of the text.

Seems a window resize event fixes their positioning.

I love audiobooks. I can do other things while I hear words. No worrying about being distracted, because being distracted is part of it.

I stopped reading the essay at paragraph four when the boilerplate Marxist horse-hockey kicked in. Does that count as being distracted?

Does anyone have a TL;DR?

Reading books is good for you (obvs.) The author is easily distracted. Distraction causes less reading of books ... internets ... Facebook ... handwringing.

OK, I am being a bit unfair but I've just seen the word: "surficiality" and actually want it to not be a speling mistak. It looks like a word that really should exist on its own merit without "pe".

If you can't be arsed with the whole piece, the final para is worth reading and actually does a pretty good job as a precis of the thesis. Give it a couple of goes and roll it around on your mental tongue. A sentence like this is either bollocks or insightful: "We hold in our hands a way to cut against the momentum of the times,"

Anyway the entire article is not too long and worth a few minutes, in my opinion. The penultimate para is stuffed full of sentences designed to get you thinking. The author likes to play with words and sounds (Mairead Small Staid is a poet, critic, and essayist living in Minnesota.)

Read it backwards, para by para. It still works.

I think they were going for irony.

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