Put down that shiny screen and pick up a book

It is getting harder to stop and read a book. I blame the digital world. My cellphone is turning me into a frittering hamster. I twitch at every online distraction. I am a junkie and hyperlinks are my drug.

I need to stop. Just stop, turn everything off and read a book. It shouldn’t be hard. Books are among my favourite things. Why am I not stopping to read a book?

There is something pleasantly monastic about the silence of a book. I’m talking about real books here, books that you can buy at Easter book sales, books made with paper and ink. I still think paper books have a healthy future in the digital age.

Reading with a screen is a different experience to reading something in print. No doubt there are people doing studies about the way screens affect our eyes and our brains. Whatever it is they are discovering, I predict that screens and gently humming machines are not as conducive to deep reading as printed books.

Last year Ikea released a funny promotional video for their printed catalogue. It was presented like a parody of an Apple product release. They called it a “Bookbook”. “The Bookbook,” they announced proudly, “comes fully charged and the battery life is eternal. Navigation is based on tactile touch technology which you can actually feel.”

It’s hard to argue with tactile touch technology.

It is interesting to note that we now do most of our writing on screens, but we haven’t yet made the equivalent transition with reading.

People seem to like their Kindles. I have not read with a Kindle. It probably would have been more convenient than the 1000 page novel I lugged around over the Christmas break.

In one of my hyperlinked trips through the internet I discovered a form of text layout that was invented specifically to aid online reading. It is called visual-syntactic text formatting. Each line of text is broken down into small phrases that cascade unevenly down the page. Apparently these cascading columns are easier to read on a screen. In a quirk that appeals to me, the resulting layout looks exactly like a poem. Score a point for poetry.

But visual-syntactic text formatting doesn’t ever seem to have taken off, limited as it is to a few dusty corners of the web. It looks to me like the incomplete start of a good idea. The principle behind it is sound – digital reading is not the same as print reading and therefore should probably be approached differently.

I am not arguing against e-books. E-books are both inevitable and useful, but we might be better to consider them on their own terms rather than pitting them in a technology fight against printed material.

Besides, technology is not my problem. How I am using it is the problem. Social media, emails and texts wink at me everywhere I go. They dress themselves up as items of urgency. I see through their tricks, but they still manage to drag me into their time-wasting vortex.

It is a tumult of backlit information. There is so much stuff: interesting stuff, helpful stuff, useless stuff, but mostly just stuff.

This quote from a blog called Wait But Why sums up the rabbit holes you can get lost in: “Let’s watch a bunch of YouTube videos on creatures of the deep sea and then go on a YouTube spiral that takes us through Richard Feynman talking about String Theory and ends with us watching interviews with Justin Bieber’s mom!”

Too rarely do I switch off the distractions. I need to rediscover my reading habit. I need to take a breather, read deeply instead of frenetically. It is time to put down that shiny screen and pick up a Bookbook.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 10 April 2015. Reproduced with permission.