The Pleasures of Reading

As designers and programmers it is tempting to think that digital is always a "better" format. Digital formats let us compact what would have taken rows of bookshelves into devices that weigh mere ounces. It allows us to aggregate and process vast amounts of information more easily than at any time in history.

In all of this progress are we losing touch with an important part of experience that is nearly impossible to replicate online? Watching the PBS documentary Digital Nation reveals some alarming trends about the ability of people to focus on a single channel experience long enough to really become immersed.

Is there a solution? I picked up a short book called The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs to find out. Relatively short at 150 pages but dense with thought provoking questions it forces us to question the assumption that more is better.

"So many books, so little time."

The avalanche of information available today makes it impossible to consume even a fraction of what is out there. As a result the compulsion is to rush through books, cross movies off a list, and continually check Twitter or Facebook for the latest news. This comes at a cost.

Even though we can't read everything we feel like we have to make the most of limited time. This leads to guilty feelings. More importantly, it prevents us from revisiting favorite media and reflecting on them in depth. Rather than delving into the complexities of Pride and Prejudice we cross it off the list of Greatest 100 Novels of All Time and move on. Despite the fact we hate every minute we force ourselves to read War and Peace since it is "a great piece of literature."

"I can get all the information I need faster through the web"

If the goal of reading is simply to absorb information than the assertion above is true. Why "waste" hours and hours reading Hamlet when you can go to Wikipedia, skim the plot summary, buy a copy of the Cliff Notes, and learn the basic plot in 45 minutes?

If, however, the goal is to have an experience with Shakespeare then the strategy above completely misses the point. Instead of racing through it is better to immerse oneself in the world. Understand Hamlet's pain, Ophelia's heartache, and the confusion of Rosencrantz and Guildstern. The quality of the interaction is just as important as the quantity.

Final thoughts

Hopefully I have given you a good taste of the types of questions that this book raises. Despite its brevity this is not a quick read that you will finish in a few hours. Find a quiet place free of distractions and let it challenge your thinking about the purpose of reading. Despite what the marketers may say there is still a place for the physical book in the world of Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and smartphones.