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 “...as 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.