A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Would it kill you to read a book?

The literary blogger Maud Newton used to run a feature called “books we missed our stop for,” in which readers were invited to share stories of being so absorbed in what they were reading they failed to get off the bus or train when they were supposed to. It came to mind while reading another piece about reading, called “Reading: The Struggle,” from Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books. Parks says “the state of constant distraction we live in” “affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it on numerous occasions over what could be days, weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels and indeed the larger world.” The old days were more accommodating to leisurely immersion. Now? “Every moment of serious reading has to be fought for.”

But is it really now more difficult to read in the way Parks remembers doing so? He allows that everyone will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed—assuming they have—and that some have greater or less resistance to the forces calling them away from the page. Those forces, of course, are today’s usual suspects: Internet, email, smartphone. But it’s always been something. The reader so easily distracted by these is probably the reader who would have been distracted by the landline phone, by the television, by the radio, by the sports page or the promise of the mailman’s arrival, by the Jones’s new car or the chance to go fishing, or by coffee and a muffin. Not to sound like a scold, but this was sometimes more generally known as procrastination. A former editor of mine used to get angry when hearing his staff talk about all the television they watched because they were “too tired to read.” If you’re tired, he told them, go to bed. If you’re distracted by your device, turn it off; there is a switch for that.

If as adults we think reading harder now than it was, then it may be because we’re adults. Adults tend not to have the careless, open-ended days they had as kids, spending two or three or five leisurely hours inside A Hundred Years of Solitude. But that’s a function of adulthood—which usually comes with a job and family and other responsibilities. And reading seriously has always demanded serious commitment.

It’s not distraction that has kept me, in several attempts since college, from getting only as far as the middle of page ninety-eight of Absalom, Absalom; it’s the single long sentence that began back in the middle of page ninety-seven, nested within which are passages like “ one man to another above the suave powdered shoulders of women, above the two raised glasses of scuppernong claret or bought champagne;--music, the nightly repetitive last waltz as the days passed … and the recurrent flower-laden dawns of that April and May and June filled with bugles, entering a hundred windows where a hundred still unbrided widows dreamed virgin unmeditant upon the locks of black or brown or yellow hair and Judith not one of these….” About two hundred words (“…the swing of crinoline indiscriminate within the circle of plain gray cuff…”) come before this, and another two hundred and twenty (“…that mental and spiritual orphan whose fate it apparently was to exist in some limbo halfway between where his corporeality was and where his mentality and moral equipment desired to be…”) follow before—there it is—the next period. And there are still more than two hundred pages of such prose standing between this and the book’s closing line (“I don’t hate it!” for those of you who haven’t peeked). Maybe I just can’t make the commitment.

As it happens, Faulkner is one of the authors Parks mentions in making the further case that fiction itself is changing to accommodate what he sees as the fractured attention spans of readers. Before, there was that author’s The Hamlet; now, there’s 50 Shades of Grey and the works of Stieg Larrson and Karl Ove Knausgaard, works to which Parks ascribes a “battering ram quality… an insistence and repetition that perhaps permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which most ordinary readers leave themselves open.” Yes, to which readers leave themselves open, again suggesting there’s a way to close oneself to those same interruptions. But aside from that, are these really the best, most representative samples of lengthy contemporary fiction Parks can present? And doesn’t literature continually undergo change anyway, not only reflecting but in some cases guiding the times?

At any rate, even if time must be carved out for reading, that also is nothing new, and plenty of people seem up to the challenge besides, whether they do it at bedtime or at breakfast, on a bus or subway (even if not to the lengths this reader goes), or some other time and some other place. A related link at the bottom of Parks’s post leads to a 2012 item from Charles Simic on how much of it gets done in the bathroom, with a brief description of an anthology called Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. So, there is always a way. And for motivation, just think of these words, no matter that that they were originally intended for would-be writers: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad…. Read! You’ll absorb it.” William Faulkner said that; it’s printed on the back of my copy of Absalom, Absalom, which I still carry around, because someday the time will be right.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I have reacched all the way to page 4 of Absolem, Absolem, and, yes, it's still on my bookshelf.  But I'm not the problem with Faulkner.  Faulkner's the problem with Faulkner.  He sees EVERYTHING, and relates everything, and by description or by insinuation he makes us aware that everything has some sort of value or disvalue, some kind of place in this values-soaked world. Nothing is to be ignored.  He exhausts the mind with it even before his narrative has begun.

Adaptation  :)

Lordy, if I don't have at least 3 books going simultaneously, I feel nervous.

Thank God the good Sinsinawa Dominican nuns instilled a passion ...., nay, obsession ... for reading in me Way Back When.

The only times I'm able to read are, as you note, in the bathroom, and (shortly) before bedtime.  At that pace, I get through a few substantial books each year and a few more beach reads.  I also spend a few minutes with the newspaper during breakfast, and glance at magazines as I'm able.

A friend of mine once complained, emerging from our bathroom, that he's generally looking for Sports Illustrated in that particular room.  I think we had a Robert Frost anthology in there at the time.

Television gets a bad rap, and it can definitely suck up all my time unprofitably if I let it, but there is some good programming, and like films and the theater, it can be shared so there is a social dimension to it.  My wife and I rarely read the same books so there isn't much of a common basis there.

Preaching would be a lot easier if there was more of a shared foundation of books, poetry and films.  Even television references are dicey these days, as the viewing habits are so segmented.

Dante was a "book glutton."  I wonder what book so enchanted him at Siena.


"Boccaccio’s Little Treatise in Praise of Dante (ca. 1350) documents his subject’s love of learning with a story about how he went to Siena to see a book, then sat reading it all day with such absorption outside a shop on the piazza that he failed to notice the noise from Palio festivities going on all around him. In mid-fifteenth century, the humanist Manetti repeats this anecdote in his Vita of Dante, adding that like Cicero’s Cato, the poet could be called “a book glutton” (“helluo libri”).


Enjoyed reading about all of the distractions that are used as excuses to avoid reading. Especially when within the article, the author plants links that lead us down into the rabbit hole that is YouTube. LOL.

The gym. And the airplane. I get through a lot of novels on the elliptical machine and on transcontinental or transatlantic flights -- both places where there's little else to do.

As a literature professor specializing in an earlier time period (and teaching a population heavy on first-generation college students), I think about this a lot. I tell my students that they need to create the conditions for absorptive reading: a quiet room, no visible screens or devices within reach or earshot, and with a longish chunk of time set aside for the task (I usually suggest reading in 45-minute or hour-long sessions).

But this isn't just about "the younger generation"; it's true for me too. Even with books I love (or books I need or want to read), I'm easily distracted if I don't protect my reading time or set up the conditions in which to read productively.

When I took on the challenge of Autobiography of a Yogi, once beyond the first 2 chapters, I was hooked so solidly, so engrossed that I could not fall asleep at night over considering it. I read every foot note, as that is where the understanding came. Pronunciation of every name was easily learned, simply by reading the details. The Index was incredibly helpful, too. This book just soaked up all my focus. 

Then years later, during a flight on a small Cesna, I was avoiding the small plane fear, reading The Divine Romance, another amazing PY book. Complete and utter absorption came over me. The flight went by in what seemed like a moment, but was actually a few hours long.

Books like these - love is all I can say.

You either start young or you don't read. We have been trying to help a lady who lost her husband a little over a year ago and has been attending daily Mass. She feels lost  at sea with the readings, especially when we are wandering around the sandy reaches of the O.T. My wife keeps urging her to read Kings 1 and 2 in small doses so she can get the continuity. But the lady just says, "We weren't raised as readers." She still gets the newspper, which her husband used to read, and she wishes she could read it. But she doesn't. (And yes, she knows how to read.)

As a bit of a warning, I always read a lot but I was looking forward to doing more of it when I retired. I retired, and I am reading at about the same rate I read when I was working. Retirement simply means more daytime distractions to replace the job. The other day, the phone rang five times between 10 and 11 a.m. (nothing important) and then to celebrate the start of another hour, the doorbell rang. I coud have been at work for all I got out of that hour of retirement.

And one more aside: Jim P's lament about modern lack of common reference points is probably worth a string in itself. Had it not been for a recent encounter with the great grands, I wouldn't have understood a word of Maureen Dowd's casting of Hillary Clinton in "Frozen."


I had an English professor years ago who had written a dissertation on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.  He told a story about a friend who started Ulysses (a much more accessible book than FW)  but when he came to the chapter that begins "O Ineluctable modality of the Visible", he closed the book and never reopened it.

I re-read War & Peace just recently.  It's a wonderful book, but the sheer length (and some of Tolstoy's philosophizing about history make it a daunting task.  I had to discipline myself to try to do 50 pages a day. For me, serious reading is a lot like physical exercise--if I stop, the muscles get flabby very quickly, and the good habit weakens even more quickly.


Kevin - if I have to work too hard at reading a book, I will almost always give up on it.  I did so with a William Gaddis novel recently.  I'm not proud of it.  Had it been assigned for a class, I would have made the effort.  I justify it on the basis that reading for pleasure should be a pleasure, and inordinate labor is a pleasure-killer.


What Flavia said. In my teenage years I used to read a book a day, but now I hardly read at all. Too many distractions. I accuse Wifi connections - once I started being able to take my laptop everywhere with me and be connected 24/7, that was the end of my steady reading.

It's scary to see how our way of life is changing.

The best thing about hurricane Irene was having no internet for four days. When my colleagues and I  reconvened at work, a few days later, we all observed the same thing: we had read more during those few days than during most of the previous year; gotten out musical instruments that had been silent for years; spent much more time than usual talking with family members; had taken strolls and chatted with neighbors whom we previously only knew by sight; had slept more, were more rested; and, although that was not discussed, had probably spent more time having sex as well. The internet is great, but all the good things of life are getting sacrificed for it.

My "to be read whenever" bookshelf is now four shelves high and three layers deep so I've turned to audiobooks while walking and driving to try to keep up.  Dombey and Sons (880 pages - a formidable undertaking even for a Dickens lover) is wonderful to the ear.

For starters, it can definitely kill you to read a book, if it's written by the likes of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.

Parks' essay seems like the sort that has its own rebuttal incubating inside it, like an alien nesting in John Hurt's chest. It seems in need of greater perspective, which might raise some questions about class, as well as just the general history of reading. Haven't the numbers of people reading "hard" books always been smaller than the numbers reading for entertainment? And since even (or especially) "hard" reading is dependent on a certain degree of freedom from want, shouldn't issues of gender and economics intrude?

The whole bit about sentence length strikes me as rather absurd. I would note that a Faulkner long sentence is its own kind of beast, one that probably would probably rip the throat out of a Dickens long sentence were they to be tossed into a cage together. And wasn't Dickens originally read in serial form? So wasn't it previously the case that the "narrative architecture" of his books provided for breaks and places to pick up the thread for the reader?


Maybe it's true that people become readers as kids - I've been reading since I can remember.  It seems like if you love reading, you'll find time for it.  I pretty much gave up reading when my eyesight became bad, but then I started listening to audio books, and now I can read again via the kindle.  It's said that people who read a lot of foction have more empathy for others .... wonder of there's some correlation between non-readers and Republicans ;) ...

Last year I missed a connecting flight out of Chicago because I was so absorbed in reading The Collector by John Fowles. It was a terrific book, worth spending a few extra hours at O'Hare.

I read a book or two a week. I will forego housework, cooking, and, for short periods, eating and hygiene if I'm reading something like "The Goldfinch" or "Middlemarch." I have never (though have been tempted) to call in sick so I could finish a book. It's an addiction of sorts, I suppose. Also, as I have very limited means, books provide the only vacations and therapy I can afford.

I try to make lists of books by theme, time period, or region, but I'm too easily seduced by recommendations and reviews. 

I understand giving up on Gaddis and Joyce (Mrs. Joyce supposedly once said, "Jimmy, why don't you write books people can understand?"). I can't get through Eugenides.

Faulkner I love, but maybe it's because I was first introduced to him in a lit class, so it gave me the discipline to read the rest. 

For some, reading books is as essential to life as breathing and food. It is for me.

Even during the years when I was juggling babies, then the very busy schedules of three school-aged kids, the household in general, and trying to get  some time with my husband (!), a bit of friend time, and do my [paid] work,  I stayed up to read after the house (finally) quieted down - no matter how exhausted and no matter how late it was. Turning out the light before midnight was rare, even though I was up again at 5:30.  In those years I literally never watched a TV program (the kids got an hour/day on weekends), nor did I read fiction,   I mostly read non-fiction and much of that was "spiritual" writers, across denominations and the major world religions.   In recent years I started some escape reading - British murder mysteries or whatever. Occasionally some current "literature" (a somewhat pretentious sounding description), and still a lot of religious and spiritual writers. I do some digital reading on my tablet (books from the public library), but still much prefer "real" books.  Like Crystal, I loved to read from the minute Iearned to read.

Anne, yes! Taking care of an infant is a roller coaster of mind-numbing boredom, ecstatic "firsts," and utter terror. (The first time my kid had a fever, he was 16 months old, and I honestly almost dialed 911.) Books kept me sane for the first three or four years, even if I was exhausted by everything else.

I'm finding the same thing holds true when crises with an elderly parent arise. I have an emergency bag that stays packed with essentials because my mother has had six hospital admits since open heart surgery last December. I throw the Kindle and charger in there, and no matter what the day brings, I know I've got about 500 books on there I can access to get me through the day.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment