David Ulin has a problem:

Sometime late last year — I don't remember when, exactly — I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That's a problem if you do what I do, but it's an even bigger problem if you're the kind of person I am. Since I discovered reading, I've always been surrounded by stacks of books. I read my way through camp, school, nights, weekends; when my girlfriend and I backpacked through Europe after college graduation, I had to buy a suitcase to accommodate the books I picked up along the way. . . . So what happened? It isn't a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. . . . In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.

I’ve been there myself. A couple of years ago I was in Ulin’s condition, and it was worrying me a good deal. I thought I might have entered into a state of permanent and inescapable distraction. However, I did escape, and the prime aid to my recovery of my old long-attention-span self was . . . the Kindle. Yes, that’s right. I have written earlier on this blog about the positive reading momentum the Kindle can generate: I went through a period when I read about twenty books in a row on the Kindle, and after I did, I had my reading mojo back. Interestingly, once I got it back I lost a good deal of interest in the Kindle, and I haven't read many books on it in the last six months or so. Im not sure quite what to make of that, but I will always be thankful to the gadget for the restorative work it did on me.


  1. Was it the Kindle or was it a phase? I would say I experienced the same thing, only I attributed it to my immersion in blogs and other small-bite reading — my feast-reading had atrophied. When I finally felt like I'd spent an entire year living on cheetos and twinkies, I sat down one day with a huge, fat history book and could hardly put it down until I was done a week later. Since then, books and I are back on good terms, and I don't mind going for a few days without checking up on every link. But good for Kindle if it helped you get back on the wagon.

  2. With Scriven on this: prolly a phase, and we all need a "something" to kick us out of it; eg, Kindle, whatever.

    I had my "breakthrough" by re-reading one of Trollope's novels and have regained my immersion abilities. (Good thing, given that I read for a living….)

    I do think that this is all part of the process of learning to live in this probably-not-so-brave world. I don't know about anyone else, but the hard reality of online life has taken about six years to plant its roots in my brain.

    I'm more accepting now than I was in, say, 2001, that yep, the online thing is the new normal, and I better figure out how to live with it.

  3. Not a comment on this topic per se, but I just wanted to say, brilliant blog. I friend of mine (rather obliquely) mentioned it, so I looked it up and started reading. Before I knew it, I'd read everything you've written over the last thirty days. I'll be reading along with you regularly from this point on. Cheers! 🙂

  4. I went through a phase like that last summer. What got me out of it was randomly deciding to reread the hobbit. Before I knew it I had read the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia in the span of 8 or 9 days.

    If you don't feel like reading and you sit down to start Anna Karenina–great book though it is–you're probably not going to get far. I've found I need something that's quick reading and engaging to jump-start my reading.

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