One of the concerns, or complaints, you hear often enough about ebooks is the by now fairly familiar one that they are some kind of Trojan horse for non-print media and its perennial ability to sap our attention spans. Argentine Spanish writer Hernán Casciari took this criticism right into the lion’s mouth last week at the third International E-book Symposium in Mexico City last week, as reported by Publishing Perspectives. There, he declared that: “I don’t care if people read ebooks or traditional books, or about the relationship between both, or about the death of either. What’s important right now is our lack of concentration, our inability to be able to read, listen or write for more than 20 minutes.”
Admittedly, it’s not the ebook format itself he blames for this digitally-induced attention deficit disorder, but the pervasiveness of other intrusive forms of media, especially the internet, email, and so on. But the conclusion is obvious, and Casciari isn’t the first one to make it, that reading a book in a digital format opens you to assault from those competing claims on your attention, opening up another app or window, and forgetting your book.
It goes without saying that I don’t agree. The same objection to rivals to books have been with us since before radio days, and people are still reading. I never heard the boob tube hailed as an aid to deep concentration. And as it happens I believe the written word is now better positioned against its rivals than it has been for a very long time.
Even if we allow that Casciari is exactly correct about the electronic erosion of our attention span, then there is still the question of where and how often that attention can be deployed. Ebooks simply liberate us to take far more books to far more places than we could otherwise. Even if we can only read in 20-minute spurts, we can do it while straphanging, walking along the street, and any number of other settings where reading a print book, never mind a big dense heavy one, would be impractical. And if you sync your books via Kindle or another cloud service, you can keep your page in your book no matter what you are reading on. Sounds like an aid to concentration to me.
I’m willing to lay odds that that convenience and multiple form factor flexibility of ebooks actually pushes up our aggregate reading time. I know it has mine. I know for sure that I have got through more, “heavier” books than I ever would have done without the magic e. And I know I’m not unique that way. As for having too many ebooks jostling for your attention, I’d say that was a good problem to have. Anyone who has ever walked into a library has always been spoiled for choice.
The quality of that attention is a different matter again. But if digital media has brought about a shift in the nature of reading, it wouldn’t be the first time. St. Augustine once remarked of St. Ambrose that he was the first person he had ever known who read without moving his lips. Perhaps things have changed again. But books are still getting read. And probably more than ever.