We often hear the concern that the digested, distracted and at-a-glance forms of reading encouraged by the internet are eroding the great old-fashioned pleasure of “just getting lost in a book”. Much like using one’s imagination, being willing to be engrossed in reading is assumed to be a moral good (although coming up with the sexual exploits of the Marquis de Sade or the idea of flying planes into the World Trade Centre no doubt also took a fair bit of imagining). EDA has written before about how internet culture is increasingly colonising unexpected areas of our lives, but to what extent did the good old model of engrossed reading really exist before the kinds encouraged by status updates, click bait half-stories and capsule ‘lists’ started competing with it?
Fears that new forms of writing technology would spell the end of sincere sustained reading actually started rather early. In A Tale of a Tub, published in 1704, Jonathan Swift mockingly applauds the invention of the index for saving readers from ever having to read a book all the way through again. Elsewhere he archly suggests a similar means for avoiding the labour of even writing them, via a machine programmed with every word in the language with attendants to sort them randomly into sentences. The philosopher John Locke was similarly nervous of the way new printings of the Bible which divided its books into numbered chapters and verses might encourage Christians to reduce it to a few misapplied memorable phrases, rather than reading it all the way through. The novelists of the eighteenth century also seemed to anticipate distractedness among their readers. Samuel Richardson produced an alphabetised digest of phrases and insights from his novels, abstracting the key points from the laborious strain of reading the books themselves. Henry Fielding appended to each of the chapters of his Tom Jones a brief description of what was to happen in it, advising his readers to skip any they didn’t like the sound of. And Laurence Sterne reversed the joke, breaking off at one point in Tristram Shandy to admonish his reader for letting their attention drift, demanding they go back and reread the last few pages properly. Even earlier, the sixteenth-century Protestant theologian Jean Calvin had claimed that every chapter of his massive Institutes surreptitiously repeated the argument of the book in full, so that even a reader who could only be bothered to dip in would nonetheless be exposed to it in its entirety. He never wonders if the book wouldn’t have been quite so off-puttingly long if he hadn’t employed this insurance policy against lazy readers. Even the greatest advocates of concentrated reading in the twentieth century – the followers of the teacher and critic F.R. Leavis – found the towering success of their educational programme of “close reading” partly attributable to the fact that it was generally focussed on short passages of poetry, of a kind that would not stretch the time or money of students strapped for both in schools and adult education colleges in the way full-length novels would.
So distracted reading has been going on for a lot longer than the internet. But what about the moral goodness we often associate with getting absorbed in a book? As Leah Price points out in her fascinating How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (2012), “whereas we think of absorption as a virtue – to check Facebook is to succumb to laziness, to read a novel from cover to cover is to find a stable self – Victorian conduct literature, and fiction, valued the willingness to be distracted”. While for David Copperfield or Jane Eyre surrounding oneself with books is a good way of escaping the hardship of one’s life, other commentators in the period saw getting immersed in reading as likely keep servants from their work, fill children’s heads with criminal fantasies, or enable married couples to ignore each other over the breakfast table. As much as the new distractedness being imposed on reading by the internet is actually not that new, the old virtue of getting lost in books has not been thought of as a virtue for so very long.