The Common Good

Are Books a Thing of the Past?

Kindle 3photo © 2010 Zhao ! | more info (via: Wylio)Sales of printed books are down 9 percent this year, supplanted in part by digital versions on Kindles, Nooks, and even iPhone apps. But the real threat to long-form, hard-copy reading -- that is, paper books -- is inside our heads, according to Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent in London.

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"The mental space [books] occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all," Hari told me last week. "It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books."

[Okay, I admit I didn't actually talk with Hari. The quote is from his newspaper column. But pop over to Twitter, and you can see how, in effect, he gave me permission to paraquote him at #interviewbyhari.]

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, long-form reading. Hari quotes David Ulin, author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, who wrote that he "became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read." Ulin wrote that he would sit down with a book, and find his mind wandering, enticing him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. "What I'm struggling with," he writes, "is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there's something out there that merits my attention."

[The "encroachment of the buzz." Sounds like a horror movie, but it's very real. I was going to add another meta thing about e-distractions, but my cell buzzed, and I couldn't help but pick it up to discover a list of birthday greetings on my Facebook page, on which, of course, I had to comment ... .]

Hari concludes that reading a book with your laptop thrumming on the other side of the room is like trying to read in the middle of a party, where everyone is shouting to one another. "To read," he writes, "you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words."

The implications of this "encroachment of the buzz" for the spiritual life are obvious. If it's difficult to achieve the "mental silence except for the words" to read a book, it's every bit as hard, or more so, to find the mental space for contemplative prayer. Such prayer requires not only a physical environment that allows us to quiet ourselves and put ourselves in the presence of God. We also need the inner space, the quiet within, as we center ourselves in contemplation.

This electronic culture of distraction may very well be the spiritual challenge of our age. And recognizing it as such -- as a spiritual issue -- is a necessary step in addressing it.

Spiritual teachers and mentors down through the years have offered tools to help us with such challenges. These spiritual disciplines may seem quaint or archaic in our fast-paced "age of the buzz." But the idea of fasting, say, or spending days in silence might be exactly the types of discipline needed to ground ourselves in a seemingly uprooted world.

We'll need to be creative as we discover digital-age versions of these disciplines. A couple in Oklahoma, for instance, decided that their family's use of technology had gotten out of control, so they instituted a digital fast: "We limited technology use in our home to just three days a week," the father, a tech-savvy pastor, wrote. "That meant that for four days, there would be no television, no iPods, no Facebooking, and no feeding tiny digital pets -- even if it meant, sadly, that they would starve."

Tempting as it is to end with a "starving the beast" metaphor, I think instead what we're talking about here is finding ways to feed ourselves spiritually, to nurture a full, rich, and profound inner life amidst a culture that seems to militate against it. Maybe while I'm pondering that challenge, I'll go read a good book.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners magazine and a research fellow for the New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary, a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. This article originally appeared on the New Media blog.

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