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Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction (2019) (theparisreview.org)
136 points by dorchadas 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments





A lot of the comments in this thread confirm that a) the Internet and social media are problems that distract us, and b) there are ways to fight the addictive behaviors they encourage. They can be made succinctly.

(I agree with both points, and admire those who attempt to regain control of their attention.)

This comment is about the tone of the post in The Paris Review. There's a kind of elegiac primitivism circulating among the cultural elite that rubs me wrong, both in Birkerts and the contemporary reviewer.

The constant evocation of "loss" associated with some intangible trauma seems like a cheap trick to hack our empathy. By cheap trick, I mean, "a trick that a lot of people use, which like Hollywood's emotional manipulations, is getting old."

One hallmark of this genre is that an essay that seems like it's about one thing ("reading in an age of distraction"), is really about the author's "I", a foray into autobiography. Another hallmark is that it says nothing new. It is completely safe, a piece of writing well within the received wisdom. Readers of The Paris Review would be hard pressed to object to any substantial point the writer made, except, maybe, that those points did not need making to that audience.

I hope that we get more people working on tools and methods that save us from the Internet, and fewer posts asking for our attention while they lament it.


First off, thanks. I really appreciate your comment and the chance to reflect. Hoping my comment comes across as fair :)

> is really about the author's "I", a foray into autobiography

I do feel there's some irony here on this "anti-narrative" perspective being at the top, as it always is on HN. (No disrespect intended, as I empathize with what you're saying, blueyes.)

To explain: I feel with "distraction",we're all talking around patience, information and narrative. Novels and long-form storytelling are information (wisdom) buried in complex narrative. And these stories, in a way, are a microcosm of the world we live in. They are perhaps practice for grappling with and distilling meaning from the complex world. To revel in a fuzzy and meandering story is to revel in a sandboxed version of the same process by which the world delivers us most lessons.

And I would argue there is huge value in sharing information in narratives, because that data/knowledge is "warmed" by empathy and grounded in imagery of physical space and experience and other things that lodge in our minds (moreso in some than others, true) in some very human ways.

But we all here (and I include myself) cannot seem to focus on even this article's grounding personal narrative, because we want the succinct information, the quick fix, the distilled solution... like addicts who've abdicated responsibility for parsing that same wisdom and personal revelation from the complex and ambiguous narrative itself.

I'm personally trying lately NOT to believe any set of universal fixes can possibly be prescribed, and that there are instead a million appropriate fixes that will take shape in the minds of each reader. That feels like a step toward the complexity that is more like the real world I live in.

I found myself reading the whole comment, adding "to me" to each line. And I can't disagree with it in that reading.

> I hope that we get more people working on tools and methods that save us from the Internet, and fewer posts asking for our attention while they lament it.

The general (ish) perspective of the larger comment (and proposed cure) feels very symptomatic of the disease to me <3


Hi patcon - thanks for the comment. I can see why you would read my comment as anti-narrative. (It looks anti-narrative to me in retrospect!)

For the record, I'm not anti-narrative. I love narratives. I think great narratives are made of engaging sequences of actions, characters faced with decisions where the stakes matter, great writing, and a persistent thread of surprise that emerges from the weirdness of life. They are enlightening and moving. (If you like great narratives, too, I highly recommend "Naples '44".)

I did not find any of those traits in this sometimes autobiographical book review, which suffered from a weird passivity, and attempted to create emotional effects in predictable ways.

It was more like a series of ahistorical snapshots, a medley of impressions and allusions, which is typical of much creative non-fiction being produced in universities and workshops today.

Was there a protagonist who struggled? How much agency did they have? If so, what was the outcome? Did they surprise us? I didn't have clear answers to those questions after reading the piece. It left me neither moved nor enlightened, so from my perspective, it failed.

You mention one of the reasons why I like narratives. They capture the paths through complexity that hint at what can be done, without prescribing rules for everyone. Narratives and case studies are one of the only ways of conveying those lessons, without over-reaching as a formula might.

But, for that to be valuable, we need to follow someone down the corridor of their experience and have some idea of the context they could observe, which led to the decisions they made.

Narratives do not have to be fuzzy and meandering. In my experience, the best ones are not. I think the work of the writer is to distill from life a sequence of words that intensify and condense the writer's experience when it is reproduced in the reader.

Yes, you can add "for me" to the end of any sentence, and that does make the author's sentence indisputable. But I believe that when we write, we are writing to try to convey something beyond ourselves, a truth that may be shared by others. The more an author retreats into "for me", the less they are doing the work of keeping their readers in mind.

The central question answered by a published piece of writing should be: why would anyone care? I care about "reading in an age of distraction"; I might care a little about Sven Birkert's opinions about that; but if you asked me before breakfast whether I care about a stranger's medley of impressions about reading in an Internet age, the answer is probably not. So part of my objection here is to the bait-and-switch of clothing a memoir in the form of a book review with a title that seems universal, when the substance of the piece is utterly subjective.


Thanks so so much for the wonderful reply. (And I've taken your book reco!) I hear ya, and your words gave me something to think on :)

>This comment is about the tone of the post in The Paris Review. There's a kind of elegiac primitivism circulating among the cultural elite that rubs me wrong, both in Birkerts and the contemporary reviewer.

Funny! It's the exact opposite that rubs me wrong, and I see it all the time from both fellow nerds, pundits, and so on...

It's like many people believe all of history is either a blob with no ups and downs - it just is what it is forever -, or a straight arrow to even better things.

It's like loss, nostalgia, or even the hint that some things could have been better is if not forbidden strongly discouraged... - lest one be considered insufficiently modern, which appears to be one of the big crimes today...


For me it's been a struggle to read for the last couple of years. It's something that I used to do when I commuted by train to my old office, I read like a book per month. But after I changed to new place where I have to go by car, that's gone and now even more when I work from home.

I just cannot find the right time or the proper situation for reading, and there are much simpler distractions such as Netflix, social networks or the videogames...


I've been worrying about this for a while.

I think there are 2 things at play; the first is a gradual wearing of our attention span in a world where we can scroll through the whole worlds news and everyone's opinion on it, in the time it takes to defecate. A continuous flow of intellectual snacks - some healthy, some junk - is habit forming. Without judgement whether it's a good or a bad thing, it's certainly a thing.

The second (which I think is exacerbated by the first) is plain old cognitive friction : it requires more brain energy to invest in book. A full page of small font text, vocabulary stretching language, vivid images created by words, high concept theories, different plot elements to assemble; all of these represent a much high load on the cranial CPU - and that's not to say we can't do it, but that we are subconsciously reluctant to make the effort.

In the same way that if your loaded gym bag is waiting at the end of the bed, you're much more likely to get to the gym than if you have to hunt through the laundry, search for your membership card, find your car keys etc etc.

I think this is covered by Dan Kahneman in Thinking Fast & Slow, but i could be mistaken.

Anyway, it's a thing.


In bed before going to sleep.

No distractions, comfortable position (obviously you would need some pillows), and it helps wind down your brain. In the weekend you can also pick up the book again in the morning if you wish. The benefit: you sleep there every day, so you can read a bit every day.

I don't use a smartphone, so no computer in bed means no incoming messages or time-sinks available at the touch of a button; I would recommend leaving the smartphone in another room or having a set routine of placing it in some kind of zero disturbance (or call only) night setting. Whatever works to stop you from grabbing it for some more mindless scrolling in bed. The time you use for reading must come from somewhere, so cut down on the low-value entertainment (this may be hard, I don't know).

Going to bed is something to look forward to when your book is there waiting for you once it is part of your routine. A good book beats starting another episode on Netflix once you've found the genres or writers that work for you.


I do this, and its great, but I don't think this is an ideal space to read non-fiction. I absolutely tear through fiction series on my Kindle but I'm not sure retention is great for non-fiction, educational, or technical topics. The only "solution" I've found is to block off a couple hours on quiet weekend days.

Same. Fiction helps me wind down at the end of the day. Nonfiction gets my mind whirring with ideas and is not helpful at bed time.

I was basically forced to do this as my insomnia got so bad during the pandemic. Now I read before bed and problem solved!

I struggled with this for a long time, and I have now found a solution that works sometimes (ie as long as I don't sabotage myself):

I bought an alarm clock. Basic $10 Casio thing, but anything else is also fine as long as it's "dumb". After a certain time in the evening, and in the morning before I eat breakfast, nothing with an internet connection is allowed in my bedroom. That's my reading time.

It's actually more difficult for me as my bedroom is also my office, so I need to unplug my laptop and put it in the living room overnight, but someone living in a bigger house/apartment than me would not have that particular issue.


I'm in a similar situation. Unless it's something I can work through (with examples or problems) or something I care about (very ephemeral), it's hard to carve out the focus or time for it.

I tried starting "Emperor's New Mind" by Penrose a month or so back. I don't think I made it past chapter one. Currently I'm binging Stephenson's "Anathem" (I fucking love this book), and feel a little bit of excitement at digging into the sources, but I'm afraid it will end up like most bibliographies I scour - well-intentioned lists I hardly ever make any progress on.

Despite my avoidance of FB, IG, etc, I still find myself spending an inordinate amount of time on Reddit or even HN. But the occasional hit of something truly useful (the Cesium for UE4 post was intriguing to me, as a project at work a few years back was attempting something similar on a smaller scale), but the constant low-level dopamine from neophilia keeps me constantly scrolling, but ultimately listless and depressed at the end of the day.

Oftimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better to make my own pinprick math, but I'm just too addicted to the Reticulum.


I started turning books into cloze flash cards. it forces me to pay attention and I can read in small chunks. If book is really really good I would retype it. If its really really good it becomes memory palace. But this is my passion and of course everyone cant do that. So try audiobooks and take long walks. Also it is really healthy to avoid screens 60 minutes before sleep and reading paper is nice way to do that.

I don't do this with every book, but I've been doing it with some technical content lately. It's surprisingly effective. Read a chapter, marking up portions I want to revisit. Revisit it with the computer open and type a bunch of things into Anki (or copy/paste if it's a Kindle book or PDF) with appropriate pieces marked up to make the cards.

Really nice for math and CS books if you also have LaTeX as you can get it to render well with a bit of practice. Now I just need to get back into my Anki habit, I was good for a couple years and then just stopped late last year which is frustrating, it was useful but my momentum was lost and I haven't recovered it yet.


it is scary to break that chain as Anki is not a problem if used regularly. but when you first start there is a lot of work setting up and going through all the cards and not just the one you need. more you use it longer it takes to get back in. like entire weekend long. it is number one reason people dont use card system even when it is known it is best study method.

Yeah, that was my reaction the first time I broke the habit ("scary" seeing 100s of cards for review). But I got through it quickly. Now the issue really is just the habit, I'm not doing it daily and barely getting it in 2-3 times a week. I've managed to restore my exercise routine after work, now I need to restore my study routines.

Can you explain a bit more what are those cloze flash cards? Do you try to memorize the whole book?

I feel like listening would be a good alternative, say when driving or doing house work. I hear long blog articles of yesteryear got replaced by audio formats (podcasts?), or audio books for whole books, but I’m too much of a geezer to learn and understand how to use them and try to figure out what’s good (hey at least with written stuff you can Scroll through quickly and see whether you like it, not so easy with audio).

Yeah, I listen to some podcasts but it's true that is a bit hard to find the ones you'll like

I drop in and out of frequent reading. I find that using my Kindle really helps bring me back into the habit, because I can read in any lighting and it always keeps my place (for some reason I never use bookmarks in real books). Once I've read the Kindle for a bit, I'm ready to put my hands back on real books.

Maybe reach for something easy, too--a book or series you enjoyed in your youth, long enough ago that you won't remember every detail. Save Tolstoy for later :)


Starting a reading accountability group has been incredibly helpful for me. Every day we post what we've read as we try to make reading (even the tiniest bit) a daily habit.

In my circle of male friends, I am the only one who reads fiction. My female friends are more likely to read fiction and some even belong to book clubs, where they sit around and discuss books. In my entire life as a reader, I've never been able to discuss fiction with people in real life.

Non-fiction is completely different, as most of my friends read pop-science or political books regularly.


You just have to consciously make time.

Get an Audible subscription.

I go through a book a month and it's been amazing. Some of the narrators are fantastic and really make the book better.


I’ve developed a reading habit over the past 18 months or so. I’m always reading. Books, I enjoy reading books. Books are less distracting. I read with a pencil and annotate notes, comments, and questions in the margins (to keep me “in the pipe”).

Prior to the last couple years I’d read for pleasure, sure. I’d also read things I had to (work, school, etc). Lately I’ve been reading like I’m optimizing for throughput—to read everything I can, to cover as much ground as possible.

I also read to my daughter (still in the womb hahah). I read her children’s books (many of them stem based). I also read books on algorithms, computing, & mathematics to her.

I prioritize reading. I wake up hours before work (not as bad as it sounds given the late start engineering culture) and read. Much of what I’m reading now are texts that one must “work through” so I read and work through books. This is all rather new to me too. I’ve never read this much this quickly.

This habit started humbly, but now the train has left the station...


I needed to read this.

“They want plot and character, sure, but what they really want is a vehicle that will bear them off to the reading state.” This state is threatened by the ever-sprawling internet—can the book’s promise of deeper presence entice us away from the instant gratification of likes and shares?”


Once I switched my main reading device from laptop/phone to a dedicated e-ink tablet, (in my case BOOX Note3, but I guess Kindles are fine too) things have gotten better. Reading through books is still tough (as a non-native English speaker) but reading long blogs becomes fun again.

For books, audio books are good compromise. Not as deeply engaged, but at least you can finish books while you're cooking/running/driving.


Yes, same thing (and also Boox Note3). If you take a device and switch off the wifi/gsm on it so you cannot get anything from outside, it really helps me focus for reading time. Even a little bit too much (I tend to finish a book in one go, no matter what else happens in the world around me); I often don't notice that hours pass by and people tried to reach me.

> as a non-native English speaker

There are books in your own language right? I do everything in English (as non-native English speaker as well) now, so read English at the same speed as my native language (Dutch), but I do read books in Dutch (and other languages) as well.


My native language is Japanese (which is very different from English), and its availability of interesting online/ebok contents is rather limited. It's especially true for technical materials.

How does the BOOX compare to a Remarkable?

I was originally considering RM2. But it seems like optimized for writing vs reading. BOOX is more usecase agnostic. I use Instapaper Android app (which works reasonably well) and BOOX's built-in PDF reader (which is very good.)

For reading, my primary device isn't an e-ink tablet, or even an audio-player. It's the book.

I read a lot more blog posts than books these days, and I wonder if I’m just eating more empty calories instead of nutritious meals.

I’m all for the promise of the Internet of giving a voice to the voiceless. But the time and quality of thought required to put words into print was a higher bar, and ostensibly higher quality on average, than the time and quality of thought I put into writing a quick blog post or vapid tweet.


Rgd empty calories, most likely yes. So it is good to have a skill to skim a blog post first to determine if it is worth reading. Writer's reputation also helps.

Terence Tao's hierarchy helped me here - book > paper > blog post > buzz note > tweet. He once wrote somewhere that he chose his medium depending on how developed the thought he wished to express was (or something to that effect).

(Remember "Gooogle Buzz"?)


This is how a phd friend of mine answered "how do you actually read so many research papers". He developed a really tuned skimming mode - I'm not sure I could apply the same technique to blogs/website due to less consistent format, writing style, etc.

A lot of books are empty calories and even good ones can became if you dont internalize it. I reread books over time and every time I get something different out of it but if I force to read something just to cross it of the list I usually forget I read it in couple months

> But the time and quality of thought required to put words into print was a higher bar, and ostensibly higher quality on average, than the time and quality of thought I put into writing a quick blog post or vapid tweet.

Very much so. It took me a long time to figure out why I could never get into podcasts, and even interviews or talks by authors I respect are boring to me. Writing books takes a lot of work, and they are almost always better organized and more coherent than other forms of information (such as forum comments . . . ). You get more "intellectual nourishment" from books, especially good books.


> I’m all for the promise of the Internet of giving a voice to the voiceless. But the time and quality of thought required to put words into print was a higher bar, and ostensibly higher quality on average, than the time and quality of thought I put into writing a quick blog post or vapid tweet.

I used to read a lot when I was younger. A lot of it was junk. I enjoyed it, I would not mind if my kids read it, but really, it did not had more quality in it then random blog.


It depends on how deep you want to go. Sometimes a shallow blog post is fine (e.g. privileges for vaccinated people?) and sometimes you need more.

At the start of this year I started an experiment; whenever an application distracted me more than once per day with a push notification or toast, it would have its permissions to send any notification of any type revoked. Even if it was a work-related app, probably the scariest category of things to turn off.

A surprise for me was that once the biggest offenders were turned off, my brain craved the low-reward distraction fix - I would find myself compulsively refreshing Twitter or a forum in the hope of getting that same brief, low-value, "here is something you need to look at" reward. But it didn't come, and while I lost close to a month of leisure time on compulsive-refreshing I found that "there is no reward here" eventually filtered through to my subconscious.

The other shock was how little people at work noticed the difference between "I have a notification, let me respond to that" and "I'm at a nice break, let me check my messages". I thought median response time going from a few seconds to a few minutes would be problematic but nobody even notices. (Perhaps they're also too distracted?) Of course there is the worst case that I get head down in something and then I'm 2-3 hours out before I can get back, but it helps we have a team where we can be quite open with the idea of, "I quit Slack if I need focus time, here are emergency ways to contact me if necessary"

I am not yet back to reading books. I hope that will come in time. But I definitely find myself better at engaging with long-form entertainment, without stopping and getting distracted within the first few minutes.


Hacks like this sound promising. Especially at T+30 days. But I wonder how well it will work across longer spans of time. Say at T+24 months?

My experience is that these habits work until "the pillars" of my life (people, place, and routine) shift. I had low screen-time before COVID: but not after. Buying a new house had similar affect. A new friend or social media app (looking at you Clubhouse) interrupts my flow and I fall back into the scroll-hole once again.

Every few months I need to re-learn how to fight against the PC in my pocket. I always find a way. But never get the sense that I've "leveled-up".


I use a screen reader for the majority of my reading so I have a literal measuring stick on how difficult to understand something is by how fast I can listen to it and still understand it.

My usual range is between 100 and 1000 wpm. The majority of modern writing is in the 700+wpm range. The majority of pre-wwii writing is in the 400-600wpm range. Technical books, like say a math book, are in the 100-300wpm range and I need to listen to them multiple times and it doesn't escape my notice that the parts which slow me down the most are the math heavy ones.

It's not that we get more easily distracted when reading today it's that our books contain less information in some fundamental way and are more boring than older books. I blame the fact that the majority of them are written with a keyboard. A medium that lets you write faster than you can think with obvious results. I don't know what modern book would have it's first few drafts be hand written but I would bet any such book would be vastly more interesting to read by the simple fact that the person who wrote it had at least five times as long to think about what they were writing than someone who used a keyboard or type writer.

For interest the article was understandable at 800wpm and this post at 600wpm.


In one of Plato's Dialogues "The Phaedrus" Socrates argues about writing as following (@ section 274c by invoking the Egyptian Myth of the God Theuth inventing "letters"): "[275a ...] For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir, not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. [...]"

"[275d ...] Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. [...]"

"[276a ...] the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image"

This self-reflected, self-conscious "inferiority" to the very living, breathing, vanishing "speech" - the written letter being at best a very poor at its worst a misrepesentative image - gives "birth", I would argue, to (modern western) literature, as we know it.

Philip K. Dick is a literal example of a relentless chase in writing a Exegesis ("a religious/contemplative practice of pointing beyond the text") until his writing drive is completely void of any "letters" to be written. A hell of a ride.

In a way looking back at "books" kind of is just the echo within the echo of the speech dying away in the moment being "spoken".

So trying to find something in books which is "missing" in our "Age of Constant Distraction" is the very same gesture, albeit - in my reading - literary trapped in a ancient rhetoric figure: “Today's youth is rotten to the core, it is evil, godless, and lazy. It will never be what youth used to be, and it will never be able to preserve our culture."


I could never give up reading. I’ve owned a Kindle since the first Kindle Keyboard and love reading even more since then, finally no more lugging around of giant books and (as a non-native speaker) it takes just one long-press to get the dictionary entry for words like "susurration" or "detritus".

Every day after going to bed and before sleeping, I read between 0.5 and 4 hours, at the moment, I’m re-reading the Malazan series which consists of 10 books with 800-1200 pages, physical versions would be far more exhausting to read.

One thing I used to do, was reading late into the night. The last time I read the series I was still a student, and I remember days when my alarm went off while I was still reading…


Yes! Here it is the birds that start their morning concert that alert me to the fact that the book is just way too interesting.

I was once at an academic conference speaking to an old and revered historian, and at one point in the conversation they said to me, 'Who has the time to read books anymore?' I was rather taken aback given their vocation. If they can't summon the time to read anymore, how many others must not be able to?!

He said he don't read books. He did not said he don't read.

Unlike in the sciences, historians publish their best and most popular work in books. Not reading books is therefore antipathetic to being a historian. Also, they were a she.

Anecdote: When I was in a history graduate program, part of our training was a "written exam" based on a list of 200+ required books (and several hundred more recommended ones). There literally was not time to read every book, so we all got a crash course in how academics read -- get the author's argument from the intro/conclusion, then get the structure/evidence/case studies by skimming the chapter list. By the end, I was able to "read" a book in about 30 minutes, but there was no way I could actually _read_ the book. The goal was to spend as much time as possible reading primary sources, not books, because that was the "value-add" for an academic historian.

Yes, I got into the habit of using books in this kind of instrumental way during my PhD, of just taking what you need and nothing more. It can't be avoided, but in the long-term it's healthy to select some choice books to read in their entirety, if only because otherwise you'll learn nothing new. There should be some balance between focusing on what's immediately valuable to you, and exploring new ideas. Books are also usually written as wholes, and are for that reason are often best understood when read from start-to-finish.

"Popular" among public is not the same thing academic seeks. Afaik, there are not that many historical books in small sub-specializations historians typically work coming out all the time.

Historians publish their history in books, even the history targeted at other historians.

I mean 'popular' for an academic book, i.e., widely read by other academics.

I can assure you that historians prioritise monographs over journal articles in the UK and US, and it's there that you'll generally find their best work.


I would recommend Alan Jacob's work in this space:

* The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9859899-the-pleasures-of...)

* Breaking Bread with the Dead (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/608945/breaking-bre...)

I would also recommend some of Matthew Crawford's work on the so-called "attention economy."


This article didn't really resonate with me at all. For one thing I simply find reading on my phone to be a superior delivery method. I always have my phone, so I can read anywhere, anytime I'm not occupied. I read on the train, waiting in lines, lying on the couch, wherever I want and I don't need to remember to bring anything. I've never owned a Kindle nor particularly wanted one because it seems redundant, I get what I need from the Kindle app on my phone. Ebooks have made reading for me more accessible.

My complaints with books these days are more to do with finding things I like amongst an endless supply of titles and authors that seem to be marketing, rather than quality, generated. I do have trouble finding new things to read that I enjoy, but I don't believe that modern writing is lacking due to some sort of online degradation. The barrier to publishing is just lower so there is more crap to sift through to find the gems, but authors who otherwise wouldn't have a chance at least have the potential to gain a readership.


I have the same reading habits as you (pretty much exclusively from a screen), but your post (and another talking about reading as many books as possible) reminded me of a conversation I had with my english teacher in ninth grade.

I forget exactly how we got to the topic, but someone in the class asked him what music he liked to listen to on his way to school. he looked taken aback, almost shocked by the question. he said something like, "oh I could never listen to music in the car; I wouldn't be able to pay attention to the road! I can only listen to music sitting in a chair by myself at home." he was a young guy btw, playing cds/cassettes/radio in a car had been normal for his entire life. I thought that was kind of absurd at the time, but I think about it every once in a while. what was so different about his experience of music that he literally couldn't do anything else while listening? does my listening to music while I work, while I drive, or while I walk around the city make it impossible for me to experience it the way he does?


Everyone's experience is their own I guess. But if something is too distracting there is always the option to stop reading if it's spoiling the book. Reading on the tram for example is likely to result in me vomiting on my screen and potentially any unsuspecting bystanders, so I avoid that.

I find it almost impossible to make time for reading these days. My saviour is audiobooks. I get a LOT of "reading" done while driving and commuting.

One unexpected consequences of COVID has actually been that the number of books I read has decreased drastically due to less time spend commuting.


I find audiobooks okay only for nonfiction. Having to follow the plot and imagery of fiction while I'm doing something else is a bit too much for me and I frequently lose focus and have to rewind.

I'm sort of the opposite. Fiction is easier for audiobooks, for me.

Nonfiction is where I often miss a number or something (like a statistic) and I have to back up and re-listen to it, and also if the point is good, I want to make a note of it to refer back to later, and I can do that more easily with a Kindle book (by making a highlight), than by digging out a physical pen and transcribing.

If I miss something in a fictional audiobook I can usually infer from the context of the next few sentences, or it's just fiction anyway, no big deal if I miss a few little things in the massive story, chances are good I'm going to forget everything but the broad beats in a month or two anyway.


I tried to listen to "Tractatus" and basically gave up after 30 mins or so. To be read definitely .. not heard.

Well maybe Wittgenstein would take bronze or silver in an "impossible on audiobook" contest? But Plato is a brilliant listen, unsurprisingly.

I guess that it depends on the type of nonfiction too. I would never try to actually learn stuff in audio format.

Personally, I just can't "handle" when the narrator does voices for characters. Overly-developed fremdschämen on my part, I guess. The only fiction audiobook I've listened to all the way through is The Lord of the Rings read by Rob Inglis, and even there I had to skip forward when he started singing.

Funny, there the number of books has increased drastically due to less time spent commuting. All that time is now available for other stuff such as reading.

May I ask which audio book service you use?

I'm not the OP but I have been using Libby with my public library's access (I live in Vancouver), and they have an incredible selection of books you can borrow for 3w. Few people know about this, but it's really worth checking if your library has something similar

Interesting comments on here and a lot resinate with me.

As humans we need to consume information to progress. Is it bad that we are "listening" rather than "reading"? We are still learning...

I can't spend much more than 10 minutes reading but I can run an hour and listen to an audiobook.


In my personal experience I noticed that it's a different experience reading a book or listening to it. Not sure if it's because of where my attention is focused on, and it's not even like I don't absorb the content while listening and running or biking. At the same time it feels like it's a different part of my brain absorbing it.

I've given a few chances to audiobooks, from short to longer ones, I don't feel it replaces the experience of reading at all, it's a different experience, like listening to a radio show but as it never happens to listen to an audiobook while doing nothing else it just feels another way to cram more "productive" activities on the same time slot. As I'm getting older I'm getting really tired of this hyper-efficiency with my time, it's became a worry and definitely is fueling an anxiety syndrome I didn't have before (of course, the pandemic has just made it much worse).

What I'm trying to achieve in life now is give myself more pace, to enjoy something I'm doing because I want and not trying to min-max my free time. So reading books now have their time slot during the week where I stop 1-2 hours just to read. The same for music listening or making music, I have no idea yet if it will help me but it's definitely much less stressful.

Sorry for the rant, totally personal anecdote but I think it ties to the reading vs listening differences.


Since when is reading solely about learning and progress? Where is there room for fiction in this information-consumption view of the literary world?

The irony of the distracting red bell with an overly sensitive popout message is not lost on me

I never like reading and probably never will. So it feels good to read something that doesn't affect me (personally).

Really love how this article is written, the choice of words and sentences really speak to me.


I have(had) an ok reading speed, and I could read couple of hundred pages of fiction and 20-50 pages of non-fiction in a stretch. Now I struggle to attain such sittings, maybe because age or habits have moulded my brain to get distracted easily.

One thing I have found to help is merging audio/textual reading. I enable tts in Kindle app or Edge reader mode and try to read along as I listen, this enables to me to have 30-60 min sessions without getting distracted. It is slower than my absolute reading speed, but I get more in a single sitting.


One of the things I’ve done with my children to help them develop interests not based on immediate internet gratification is to not give them cell phones till high school.

I view cell phones as just too addictive for young children. This has given them the opportunity to cultivate all sorts of interests like books, legos, playing outside, etc. I’m not saying that cultivating these interests is impossible in the world of tech, but it’s even harder for children to resist tech than it is for adults.


I have a bit of a "compulsive etymologist" streak in me. So when I encounter a word whose usage I ponder about, a tool like Kindle which lets me leap into that word's world in a click absolutely poisons my experience. These days I consciously tell myself "BERT can learn what a word means by only looking at usage contexts, and so can I" and move on with a note. Later on, if I feel like it, I revisit some of these contexts.

Curious that you have a negative view of that. When I come across a word I don't know I am usually too lazy to look it up, and so I infer its meaning. But I don't know if I infer it correctly! I'm convinced this is how we end up with word meaning mutations; the traces of which, of course, are the object of etymology.

Coordinating a mapping from reality to our internal world of ideas is hard enough without basic disagreements on the meanings of words. I find it hard to take joy, as some descriptivists do, in words that also mean their opposite!

I like the idea of writing a word and its page number inside the back cover of a book for looking up later but I never seem to have a pen to hand either.


> so I infer its meaning. But I don't know if I infer it correctly! I'm convinced this is how we end up with word meaning mutations

Sometimes. Sometimes something more intricate happens.

是 is, in modern Chinese, the verb "to be". Like other Mandarin verbs, it works in pretty much the way an English speaker would expect, coming after the subject of the sentence and before the object: "I am an American": 我 [I] 是 [am] 美国人 [an American].

That's also how verbs work in Old Chinese. It isn't how predication works, though; where modern Mandarin has (thing)是(other thing), Old Chinese says (thing)(other thing)也. "Lao Tzu was a man of Ch'u": 老子 [Lao Tzu] 楚国人 [a man of Ch'u] 也 ["was"]. 是 is an important word in Old Chinese, but it's not even a verb - it's the proximal demonstrative pronoun, "this".

How does that turn into the verb "to be"? Well, "this" is often used to refer back to a complicated noun phrase. So you see a reanalysis:

鱼出遊从容是鱼乐也

鱼 [fish] 出遊 [come out on a pleasure trip] 从容 [(and) relax]。是 [this] 鱼乐 [fish happiness] 也 ["is"]。

鱼 [fish] 出遊 [com(ing) out on a pleasure trip] 从容 [(and) relax(ing)] 是 [is] 鱼乐 [fish happiness]。

The meaning of the utterance didn't change at all (though we forgot that it was supposed to end with 也). But the meaning of 是 inside it changed quite a bit.


Another way for semantic shift to occur:

- You have a word, and it has a meaning. The nature of this kind of thing is that this word will be used more often in some contexts than in other contexts.

- Someone who knows the meaning perfectly well extends it a bit in a straightforward way. For example, "illuminate" primarily means to shine light on something, making that thing easier to see. But it can be used in an extended sense to refer to making a "murky" concept easier to understand. Anyone who knows the primary meaning will understand why the secondary meaning makes sense.

- So now we have one context where the word is likely to mean one thing, and another context where the same word is likely to mean something a little bit different.

- But the world changes. The old context may become less common. As that happens, what was a metaphorically extended meaning may turn into the ordinary primary meaning.

- All of this happened without anyone learning the wrong meaning of the word. It was always being used correctly. But the meaning shifted anyway.


Thank you, I enjoyed your illuminating comments, and for the search phrase "semantic shift". I should have been more cognizant of metaphorical extension, having recently read [0] which claims "tall" went from "swift" to "vertically large" via "skillful" ("tall of hand") then "exaggerated" ("tall story").

[0] http://theconversation.com/five-words-that-dont-mean-what-yo...


I haven't been able to read a book in a long time. I think I have adult-onset ADD and all the media out there to consume is overwhelming. It's crazy that if I want to read I will have to schedule time in the calendar for it. I was a kid before home PCs existed and back then books were something that I craved because we just didn't have the tsunami of media that we do today.

I struggle to read books nowadays, but it's getting better since I reserve time for it. Still have issues concentrating long enough. This a fun app that tries to help: https://immer.app/en/home/ (not affiliated)

Discussed at the time:

Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19147316 - Feb 2019 (170 comments)


I thought this was going to be about reading articles online, with ads appearing in between paragraphs, blinking on the left and the right, making it impossible to concentrate on the actual article.

How does anyone actually read these articles?

And do the ads even work? If I can't disappear the ads, I close the page.

But somebody must be reading the articles(?)

And somebody must be clicking through the ads and buying stuff(?)

I can't believe how bad the experience is.

Tell me it's just me, and everyone else thinks its normal(?)




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