May 20th, 2006

The Virtue of Undivided Attention


In media 2.0, everything social, interactive, linked, comment-enabled, etc. is GOOD, and everything static, one-way, unlinked, and solitary is BAD. Take Jeff Jarvis’ critique of books:

The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches.

Now I agree with many of Jeff’s critiques, especially the market limitations of the paper-based book medium. But consider this rebuttal from Steve Baker in the comments of Jeff’s post:

I read books when I want to be immersed. I don’t want a conversation, I don’t want to be interrupted, I don’t want to click onto a detour. I just want to be in the thrall of someone’s story or line of thinking. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve not yet had an experience sitting at the computer that’s come close to Magic Mountain or Catcher in the Rye or Maus.

It’s late, I’ve had a glass of wine. I hear the beep of the Tivo downstairs clicking through ads. I could watch TV (and I probably would if my kid would watch the NBA instead of Numbers). But I think I’ll go upstairs and read Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee. This is one of the moments in my daily life that I cherish. When I’m ready to forego it, I’ll let you know.

There are times when we don’t want to be social, we don’t want interaction — we just want to focus. Sometimes I feel like reading online is giving me attention deficit disorder.

It’s true that a book is like a speech that can’t be interrupted, updated, or altered. But the medium of speech giving still persists after thousands of years because sometimes its useful to just sit and listen to one person’s ideas, to give them your full and undivided attention.

Yes, there are a lot of crappy books, and a lot of crappy speeches, but there’s too much crap everywhere. A GOOD book (or a good speech) is worthy of my undivided attention.

And I’m not defending paper — digital readers will eventually make it over the hill, as another of Jeff’s commenters points out:

We still aren’t quite there technologically to replace books completely. We still need a display with the resolution of print — at least 300 dots per inch. Current screens just don’t have the resolution for comfortable reading the way ink on paper does – ever notice how the most comfortable way to read most PDFs is at 125 or 150 percent?

These displays should also be reflective, rather than backlit, so that they can be viewed in bright lighting conditions. It’s much easier to turn on a bedside light to read by than to turn down the sun when you’re at the beach.

The display must also be fairly forgiving. Exposure to the slings and arrows of normal daily usage can’t render it unreadable. Of course, low power and cheap go without saying.

But even when someone invents the iPod of text, there will still be ocassions when I just want to sit back and enjoy the story, without searching, or linking elsewhere, or talking back. I just want to listen.

  • While I recognize the importance of web 2.0, and it has its outstanding strengths - I am not sure that 'a digital book' (ipod, palm, etc) will ever replace laying on the couch, on a cold night, with a blanket and reading...
    I agree that many books can be too long and drawn out (to justify being a book).
    I wonder if publishing can get to 2.0 - i.e. a book starts in paper, and then continues on the web - with a blog, or wiki, or online forum.

  • Scott, I strongly disagree with your...oh look, a kitten!

  • Scott, I'm certain you're right about the ADD point, and I said as much to Stowe in a comment to a post he wrote some weeks ago on the topic. He responded by calling me "ordinarily sensible", and then disagreeing with me :). "Ordinarily sensible"? It was downhill for me after that.

    I would write more about the ADD issue, but I can't remember what we're talking about. I do know, though, that I miss undivided attention. I wish I could remember what I used it for. :)

    Thanks for coming to mesh, Scott - it was great having you join in.

  • Yes, without saying so (I should have), I concentrated more on nonfiction than fiction. And I'm not suggesting banning paper. But I would like choice. If I want to take something on a plane, paper is wonderful. But why not also have it available digitally so I can search it and such? And as for even fiction, there are benefits in enabling a community to gather around shared interests: We can find more of what we each like since we like the same stuff; we can discuss the work -- but only if we feel like it; we can preserve it and share it past the remainder table. Yes, if I said that paper were bad, I'd be guilty of the sin I pin on others: caring about the medium rather than the substance. What I'm really arguing for is choice, flexibility, possibilities. And making paper the only choice -- especially out of cultural snobbery about it -- is a pity when there are new and wonderful options to be had, eh?

  • Eric

    Well, I think you're right at least as far as novels and fiction goes; it'll be a long time coming before anyone can come up with a suitable replacement for reading a paperback on the beach.

    There's a distinction between fiction and nonfiction though; books as entertainment vs. books as informational resources. While digitizing the novels of the world is a side effect of Google Book Search and similar efforts, I think the driving motivator (at least for Google) is the latter. How much of the world's information is locked up in books, sitting on a library shelf somewhere, inaccessible to all but a tiny few, who probably don't even know what's inside? That's where searchability, linking, etc. would be a huge gain - unlocking the untold amounts of information present in the world's books. Think of the difference between Wikipedia, with its extensive web of links between articles and external sources, vs. a dead tree version of Britannica. Without regards to the accuracy of either; I know which form it'd be easier to find information with.

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