Not long after joining Twitter I followed a user whose short biography on the micro-blogging site announced, “I’m going to read Ulysses, but I want to finish the internet first.” It made me laugh because, like most of the funniest things in life, it was based on a terrible truth. I’m afraid I can’t credit the quote, the internet is too big for me to find this user again and even if I did they would probably have changed their pitch. I hope not, it was a good one.
There are those who like to complain about the rise in activities such as Tweeting and the fall in the amount of reading getting done, but the truth is there’s reading and writing in social media. For those who react to and share content there’s writing and reading in the whole of the online experience.
Various prize-winning Irish writers have publicly bemoaned the pull and tug of the evil anti-writing drug that is the internet. Author of Solace, Belinda McKeown told a radio interviewer she took to unplugging the modem until her husband complained that he lived there too. In the end she opted for an old-fashioned notebook and pen approach to her writing time, away from the temptress Twitter, the rabbit-hole YouTube and the persistent allure of Google.
In 2012, City of Bohane author Kevin Barry wrote a very funny piece about checking his email 150 times a day when he really should have been writing, and the problem with getting any kind of flow going amid all of this self-initiated interruption. You should Google it some time, but not right now, because right now you are reading this. Or are you? Are you not also maybe half watching a screen somewhere nearby (or another screen if you are reading this online), texting or Tweeting or thinking of something to text or Tweet in a minute, maybe half way through reading this.
The reality of 21st century life is there’s very little any of us do without also simultaneously doing several other things. I reckon all this frenetic multi-tasking is one factor in the rise of popular interest in mindfulness, a non-denominational practice which teaches advocates to focus solely on the task at hand. I read fewer books now that I read more internet. My ability to concentrate on long tracts of text has been eroded. The smartphone has been the main conduit of this change.
Still, reading is not dead, far from it. And perhaps the continuing popularity of bookclubs, a phenomenon that is not much more than a decade old in this country, is connected to the fact that we all need a bit of an outside shove to commit to reading anything longer than a headline or a status update. We welcome peer pressure and a deadline to finish a book and we revel in a feeling of community (share, tweet, review) when we have done so. Of course, it’s also possible to chart the Irish bookclub boom alongside the discovery of wine featuring neither nun nor tower on the bottle in this country. Bookclubs are great. There’s reading and drinking in them.
The other day, a friend visiting her parents at home struck up a conversation with her mother about the books they were reading. Noticing her little sister was staying quiet she asked her “what are you reading at the moment?” “Comments,” said the little sister. “Oh,” said my friend, “I haven’t heard of that. Who wrote it?” “No, I mean comments,” she said, “you know, online.” Looks like there’s another one who wants to finish the internet first.
A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 5 September 2014.