I began this column in January in a moment of bravado. I’ve loved reading almost since I first learnt how to read, but over the last few years or so, I have been feeling like I’ve been reading less and less. Or at least, less and less of the books I always thought I’d read some day.
A fortnightly column would ensure, I thought – with a healthy dose of optimism, I must say – that I at least read one book every two weeks, and not necessarily just the books I’d be inclined to read already.
Once I committed to this, I’d have to do it, or risk the wrath of an editor with a last minute page to fill (definitely not something I’d recommend).
About six months down the line, I must say Booked Out is going quite well; I’ve managed to keep to the schedule most of the time, I’ve read some real gems that I would not have picked up otherwise, and most of all, I’ve been having some wonderful conversations about the books I’ve read.
There is one thing, though, that I did not anticipate, which is just how difficult it is to read these days.
I don’t mean that it is difficult to find time to read, though this is indeed true for many people. Instead, I’m referring to how the way I communicate and consume information today is almost antithetical to the practice of sitting down for extended periods of time and sinking into someone’s writing.
And yes, if you can already sense it coming, I am referring to our reliance on mobile devices.
With the smartphone, information is often presented in brief, digestible bits: tweets, status updates, news flashes. Conversations, meanwhile, can be drawn out over days thanks to messaging apps like Whatsapp.
These modes of operating, I’ve realised, make it very difficult to disengage and give one particular activity your full attention – particularly because reading a book, for me, is only rewarding when I can lose myself in it.
Now, let me reassure you that this isn’t going to be one of those “smartphone bad, books good” diatribes.
It is, instead, the lament of someone who finds it increasingly challenging to engage in something she loves, and is trying to figure out how to alter the situation.
Take, for instance, the book I’m reading for this week’s column, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A seminal work in contemporary Russian literature, the book is excellent. And at only 150 pages of plain, matter-of-fact prose, it should also have been a relatively quick and easy read. Yet, I have to confess that in the two weeks since I began this book, I’ve only got halfway through it.
Why? Because I usually read with my phone beside me, and each time a notification beeps, my attention is diverted.
A work e-mail, a reply in a particularly juicy conversation, a witty response to a tweet, a news alert … they all have the power to drag me out of the world of the book and then make it doubly difficult to dive back in.
Putting the phone on silent mode didn’t really help, since my brain is attuned enough to the sound of it vibrating to notice, and even when I turned that off, I’d be able to spot my phone screen lighting up from the corner of my eye.
The only thing that really worked was leaving my phone in another room, and even then, I found myself getting anxious every so often at the thought of missing an important call or message.
But having identified the problem, I’ve been trying to fix it, trying to wean myself off of having my phone around at all times.
I’d like to think I’m slowly learning to disconnect when I need to, and rediscovering the joy of getting so immersed in the pages of a book that hours pass in a flash.
And I’m currently finishing One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.