Conversations about teens, technology and distraction are nothing new. When mobile phones first started to move from the domain of Important Business People at airports and into the hands of the general public, we worried that their presence in schools would be too distracting for students. (And we still have to tell the cinema-going public–including an awful lot of people over the age of 18–not to text or talk during movies.) Now that more and more schools allow students to bring their own laptops or tablets to classes, we worry about filtering and blocking sites like Facebook or YouTube during school hours.

And now there’s the question of reading on digital devices, and the threat of distraction by the device itself–or, at least, that’s what New York Times business writers Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel would have us ponder. Is tablet reading “more like a 21st-century cacophony than a traditional solitary activity”?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a multi-platform reader. I have a (print) book in my car in case I find myself early for an appointment. I have OverDrive on my Android phone and my iPod Touch, so that I can easily check a book out from my local public library if I’m on the go. I have a Nook Color, which I mostly use when traveling (and that my partner has all but co-opted after giving it to me for my birthday). And I’m constantly picking up (print) books at work to read at the desk, many sucking me in enough to get tossed in my bag to read at home.

And here’s my secret: I’m always a distracted reader.
Things I have done while reading a book:

Looked up a word I did’t know (sometimes on a built-in dictionary, sometimes online, sometimes in an actual print dictionary)
Looked up an event or a person on Wikipedia when I didn’t get a reference
Responded to a text
Put on music
(Half) listened to NPR
Eaten Chex mix
Attempted to keep my cats from eating Chex mix
Cooked a meal
Flown cross country

Things I have occasionally failed to do while reading a book:

Get off at the right subway stop
Leave for an appointment on time
Check something in the oven before it starts burning
Prep for a class coming in last period
Finish a level in Lego Harry Potter
Feed the cats dinner on time

None of the things I listed apply only to e-reading, by the way. Most of them have happened in the last month with print books, actually. And here’s the thing: once I was done with all those things (or done failing at those things), more often than not I went back to reading my book.

But what say you, reader? Does your Kindle or Nook or iPad make reading a “21st century cacophony”? Do you long for a 20th (or 19th, or 18th) century “solitary activity”? Can your teens relate to those who say the lure of apps and email is just too great when reading on a tablet?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.

3 Thoughts on “Reading to Distraction

  1. This is a beautiful post for all readers (and so much wiser than the NY times piece which, per usual, tells the “hell in a handbasket” story of new-style distracted reading, as if no one was ever, every distracted before). This blog made me smile. I’ve facebooked and RT’d it to all my friends who love to read . . .

  2. Thanks for the post mk. I read the article in the Times yesterday and had a little bit of a melt-down about several aspects. First, I want to ask, when did we stop considering how good a book is and how much it speaks to the reader in terms of whether or not one gets distracted? I know that when I read a really good book in any format – traditional print, e, or whatever – that if it grabs me then I’m not going to get distracted. But, if the book is pretty bad, or I don’t just connect with it, I’m going to be easily distracted.

    Also, as you say, it’s always the case that one can be distracted when reading, or when doing the dishes, or when watching TV, or when whatever. What we all have to learn to do is to manage the distractions no matter where they come and in what type of experience. It’s about choices. If reading and you know you should focus on the reading, then turn off the other distractions. Turn off those Facebook and Twitter notifications on your device. It’s easy enough to do.

    When I was ranting about this on Twitter yesterday someone tweeted me and said, “If ‘kids these days’ ” can’t focus it’s because they won’t discipline themselves, if adults can’t focus it’s the tools…” I love that because it’s so easy to blame the tech when really it’s us that needs to manage things – us being kids, teens, or adults.

    I do also have to say that the NYT article was far from well done. I was talking about it with someone and we decided it read like an un-edited draft.

    That’s it for my rant at this moment.

  3. I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve heard a teen say they finally have time to read good books because they don’t have to read the ones assigned in English class anymore. Many readers are discovering they actually read more when they have the option of a new format (Linda, aren’t you one of those?), but yes, in so many cases the issue is the book, not the reader.

    I was telling someone recently that I love NetGalley, because I can quickly load a dozen titles on my Nook if I want to, and when one turns out to be a dud I can immediately try another. If a book stinks and I don’t have other reading options at my fingertips, yeah, a video game or TV or checking my email is suddenly going to look awfully tempting.

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