Reading was easier when I was younger. It was simpler, purer. But, then again, the solitude needed to read and enjoy a book was not that hard to find. The ubiquitous—loved and hated, real and imagined—blinking notification light on cellphones was still a long way away; so were the various badges, banners, and app message counters. Facebook was still swirling around in a Harvard dorm room; yogic Instagram captions trailing semi-nude images were not yet a trend. Being plugged in was not really a thing.
In general, the world was somewhere out there, far away. Or it was in front of me, in a book, rising off the pages. It was not something I carried with me in my pocket all of the time. It was never that close. It existed as bound stories, not as fluid, constantly updated content.
And because the world was far away it was not hard to escape it. It was easy to disappear into a room and read for hours on end without being distracted by the possibility of meeting someone online or missing a trending topic. The radio would catch me up on new songs, it mattered little whether I was the first one to hear a new melody and comment on it. The same would go for films. Sooner or later I would be able to immerse myself in them. There was no rush.
And, most of all, there was no pressing desire to share what I was thinking or feeling, what I was eating, what I was doing and who I was doing it with, or where I was going or not going. The book did that for me, a character felt what I had to feel, a plot took me places—the book did the sharing, not me.
All I had to do was show up and read.
Over the years the numbers of books I read each year have been decreasing. Sure, we can attribute that falling number to work and more responsibilities. All of that plays a factor. But, more than anything else, I think, the newfound need to be constantly plugged in, or to share, or to create and then share, has made it harder to find the solitude necessary to read. Reading is an antisocial enterprise; it is an alienating act. It is exclusionary. In order to read you need to close up, you need to stop sharing for a moment, you need to stop looking at what the rest of the world is doing.
The realisation hit me when I plunged into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series again, reading Equal Rites and Sourcery in three days, and then reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in a day or two. I would seek out a secluded corner of the house or a desk in the library to read. I would read early in the morning, through lunch, and late at night. I would ignore my phone for long periods of time and not reply to messages. Whenever I would put down my Kindle I would be snowed in by an avalanche of WhatsApp messages, emails, and missed calls. I would then have to spend time catching up with time.
It made reading feel like a deliberate waste of time. It made it harder to continue. Should I be reading right now? Was I being antisocial? Should I have been sharing?
Yes, I should be reading. Yes, I was being antisocial but only to create the loneliness needed to read. And, yes, I could have been sharing. But then I would not have been reading, would I
Perhaps that is why so many people do not read, or read as much any more. Perhaps the pressures of constantly sharing and being plugged in outweigh the time it takes to consciously remove oneself from the world and read. Perhaps it is easier to read when the world is in a book, and not in your pocket, vibrating, constantly demanding your attention.