30 March, 2011

"Fiction Reveals Truth that Reality Obscures": Can't Read, Won't Read

I have discovered, over the past few years, in my post-graduate frenzy, that I cannot read.

I mean, I can read – I have a degree in English Literature and a subscription to Cosmo (guess which I’m most proud of), both of which would be a small struggle without the reading badge on my Brownie’s sash. What I am referring to is my loss of ability to let a book consume me, my thoughts and my emotions, to the point I entirely forget about the real world, what time it is or what I have on tomorrow.

This is a girl who grew up reading her Mum’s Marian Keyes’ and taking books onto the beach or into the garden escape teenage trials and tribulations. It is a sad realisation that the last time I read a book cover to cover was on holiday in the summer. Two summers ago.

When my friend agreed the other day that she also can no longer relax enough to read, I concluded that my own experience is in fact a fairly universal tragedy of our generation. A poignant calamity for the people who have grown up reading with Big Bird, listening to Jackanory and anxiously awaiting the next Topsy & Tim.

So what has become of us when we can no longer sit down with Harry Potter, Dumbledore, the invisible cloak and a couple *HUNDREDS* of Hobnobs, without wanting to focus our attention elsewhere?

Social Media (again)

Facebook, Twitter, 4-Square, BlogSpot, LinkedIn…with so many social networking sites to update, monitor, check in on and report back to, is it any wonder our precious little spare time is now spent checking for messages, notifications, posts, comments, likes and tags, rather than flicking through to find out if Darcy ever gets a bloody grip?

Not only do these social sites increasingly consume our time, but they provide effortless and instant entertainment with minimal thinking required. They’re free, accessible at any time/from anywhere, they don’t require their own storage facility and you wont find squashed spiders between the pages (unless you’re on some dodgy insect forum), so why wouldn’t we reallocate our time to these virtual monsters, instead of going cross eyed from trying to understand what the hell George Orwell’s on about?

However, this is not good. For although social networking sites fill our time perfectly adequately, definitely tell their own story (and not even fiction, in these gems you have your very own online docu-soap) and provide hours of entertainment (why read about Mr Darcy when you can stalk his modern-day counterpart on Twitter *Ashton Kutcher @APLUSK* 24 hours a day?) they are still a social past-time. They can’t replace the indispensable solitude of reading – which, for me, is wherein the remedial aspect of it lies. 
Reading - the best state yet to keep absolute loneliness at bay.  ~William Styron
My Mum (the wisest woman in the whole wide world luckily for me) says social networking sites are like being at a “constant party” (although she obviously wants to attend as she has for few years now “had a wall”.) On the flip side, reading is like knowing when it’s time to just settle down, get down from the table, retrieve your bra from the chandelier, climb out of the cage and go the HELL home from the party (which apparently is in Charlie Sheen’s basement). Which we all need to do sometimes.

Mark Zuckerberg recently claimed that “people no longer expect privacy, it is no longer a social norm”, highlighting this all-sharing, anti-solitary nature of today’s society, encouraged by the likes of Facebook. The problem for my little social networking generation is we’ve all been at the party far too long and we no longer know any different. We’re mad for the next hit and we won’t let any new John Grisham stop us from getting it. Book shelf? Isn’t that where people keep their dust?

Smart Tech

Subsequent to the social networking sites distracting us from our poor neglected paperbacks, are the blackberry’s, iphones, laptops and ipads that allow us constant and instant access to our virtual entertainment centre ALL DAY LONG. On the occasions that I do try and focus on something other than life’s never-ending social gathering, I find it impossible not to pick up my Blackberry (with which I have a love hate relationship) every few minutes and look for that little red indicator, telling me I have an email, a Facebook notification, a text or a Tweet. And it taunts me, daring me to resist the temptation of finding out who, what, when, where, instead of proceeding to the next chapter. And increasingly that taunting red indicator wins.

I used to be able to regulate when I check my Facebook, but Smart Phones and the like give us social technology on tap, like a drug. And like a pesky child who we have inadvertently adopted they demand our attention and dare us to ignore them. When was the last time you went to the cinema and didn’t check your phone half way through or find yourself sat next to the person who keeps looking at theirs every 5 minutes, responding to their notifications right in the middle of Colin Firth’s coronation?  There is no room for books in a world where 28% of young adults check their Facebook from their SmartPhone the minute they wake up.  

I think Steve Jobs was in part trying to reconcile the discrepancy between old-school and modern day entertainment values with the rather desperate launch of the ipad, as you’re supposed to be able to read a book ON said pad, therefore eliminating the guilt-ridden decision to switch on your latest godly Apple device rather than finish a chapter. But really, come on, what is ACTUALLY the point? That’s like saying “No need to buy a real chocolate bar, because we can teleport unto you tiny chocolate particles through the screen, which you can then capture individually and enjoy with quite a lot of difficulty. And we will charge you $499 for the privilege.” How do you like that, Apple?

If ever we do switch off our “smart” devices in a manic act of defiance, the chances are we will run screaming back to the little imp within hours. “I’m sorry Blackberry Curve 3850, I didn’t mean it! Nothing compares to your ability to multiple-notify me! Life with you is a whole App World!” and we sigh with relief when we tap in and find the universe is still at our fingertips and no we haven’t been banished from the world’s everlasting social event.
The last time I read a book cover to cover I was by a lake in the south of France, where I had no signal for a week. And I absolutely loved it.

Choice and indecision

Today’s consumer culture means that we are overwhelmed by choice and decision throughout our whole decision-making lives. What sweets do I choose with my pocket money? What dress do I buy for my birthday party? Which car will pick up the most girls? Which toothpaste will give me a Cheryl Cole smile? What channel can I watch without relentlessly mouthing the words because I have seen it fifty times before (hint NOT e4)? We are presented with choice, opportunity and pressure to decide in everything that we do, everywhere we go, all day long.

This is a modern day concept fairly new to a society overwhelmed by consumerism. “When I was your age, we just had our favourite jeans and a few tops from Tammy Girl” my Mum tells me, whereas me and my friends pretty much have a new outfit for every occasion – a material example of our choice-ridden social existence.

In a world so sunken by variety, is it any wonder books get such a little look-in? As a friend asked me the other day “If its bedtime, you’re knackered, and you have the choice between watching Friends on your laptop or tackling Ivanhoe – you know what you’re not going to do.”   

Restless Minds

When I was at uni I rarely made it through a whole book. Given my course was English Lit, it may be concerning that I graduated. I could read poems no problem, even short stories and plays. But an entire book? Oh My Lady Jesus no. I had time enough, I probably could have whizzed through the entire reading list for all the universities in the Northern hemisphere with a bit of focus. But to read a WHOLE BOOK would require actual concentration.

The reason for my inability to concentrate I have since been able to put down to the fact that I was restless, discontent and unable to focus my mind on anything real, so caught up was I in superficial distractions, chasing after unsuitable suitors and co-ordinating (or as the pictures tell me, NOT co-ordinating) outfits, instead of chilling the hell out with Shakespeare. My course friend, however, was pretty content, confident, secure, able to switch off from university life, and consequently could plough through narrative at the speed of light. 

In order to read, I think, most people will probably find they need to be to some extent relaxed and have some peace of mind. You see people tapping furiously away on laptops looking like they might explode. You see people swearing into their mobiles whilst stiffly checking their watch. But how often do you see someone furiously reading a paper-back on the train, huffing and puffing with each leaf-turn, blaspheming at the pages?

The restlessness of the modern world rarely sees us in a fit state to just chill out, rest on our laurels (whatever that means) and kick back with the Montague’s and the Cap’s. We have too many dramas of our own to even begin to devote any time to the absurdities of Oscar Wilde and co. In order to sit, read and let our minds wander into the pages, we basically need to be a little bit chilled out already, and a little bit stress-free – something that is becoming as rare as a straight man who hasn’t fallen in love with Glee.


It no longer seems to be the case that we cannot leave our work at work (surprising when we carry our emails to bed in our Blackberry’s), and leave the day behind us with Richard and Judy’s latest bestseller. There are too many distractions, too many other options and a novel of other real-life concerns.  In a busy, scheduled, up-tight society obsessed with their Twitter following, how are we ever going to have the peace of mind to get through Middlemarch?


  1. You need to turn off that little Blackberry, disconnect the internet and snug in with a good book Miss. Hassack!! My tips for getting back into reading (I had the same issue myself not so long ago):
    Go to the bookshop and spend a significant amount of time mooching around til you find a book you get excited about.
    Before setttling down to read, make sure you've replied to those emails you needed to, you've checked your faceyb and you've sent me a humourous message(!)
    Pour yourself a glass of vin, put some houmous and dippy things in front of you.
    Snug on in and get going!
    I kept thinking it was going to be an effort to get reading again (like we didn't do it DAILY at uni!), but if you've had some snacks, you're comfy etc, it feels like such a treat!
    Another great post Han...so proud of you for keeping this up and sharing your apt and finny insights.
    Big love and kisses
    p.s. The American loves Glee.

  2. finny insights...or funny...as you like really. xx

  3. It is true you need to be relaxed to get into a book. It took me about 2 months to get through (a short) book that I was absolutely ENGROSSED in so what that tells you I don't know (It takes me three weeks to read Attitude magazine so there's a hint) Having recently been the victim of a lost iPhone (twice in a month) I realised just how much I do rely on it for my facebook/twitter/grindr needs. Instant access and 'quick cheat' contact to friends and loved ones seems to be not just the norm but the necessity in the hecticly busy lives of the 21st century social networker... That said the last few days when I was without phone I really enjoyed the distance of not being on the end of a tweet/poke/text... Though my carrier pigeon was knackered Xx

  4. your writing style is improving hassack! in my expert opinion. tho "oh my lady jesus"??????

    also i still read. but i do only use fb and my fone cost me less then 10 quid.
    tho i get through books much much more slowly now. for 2 reasons, 1. all the hours of my day are already filled with work gym, eating etc. and 2. cuz im exhausted wen i get into bed and cant keep my eyes open past one page. its the trials and tribulations of being a working girl. back in the halcyon days of harry potter we were footloose and fancy free.


  5. Nice post Han. Ironically I was reading my book, got bored and decided to check Facebook for a bit of a real life 'fix' when I came across your blog post :-)
    The thing about reading (if you read a lot of chick lit like me) is that it is escapism to read about other people's lives. You connect with the characters in the book and can often relate to what they're going through. But why read a book when you can do exactly the same thing with Facebook, twitter et al? Why connect with fictional characters when you can connect with real people? And you can choose when you want to be a voyeur and when you want to play a part yourself, so to speak...

  6. HEN! I had this exact same conversation (word for word obvs!) with my mum the other week! I think at uni we learned to skim massive novels and what not in minutes in order to write up a 1st class essay on the entire thing! I can't read at all now... not even your blog post! haha. jus' kidding! I read that! Almost! I'm still working up the nerve to open my online account and donate to your run... I'm actually really horribly nervous to look however, maybe I should just give you all my details, and you can do it! And not tell me any little detail of how much trouble i am in! Thanks!!!!

  7. tried to comment on this ages ago to tell you how true this rings for me right now! especially since moving to the big smoke and having to deal with buses/tubes/trains switching my brain off and actually escaping to the world of reading has become IMPOSSIBLE. and it annoys me so much. when I was travelling I read something like 30 books over 3 months, totally think I've lost my touch now because of that. instead I check my facebook/twitter/hotmail constantly waiting for a piece of news I may have missed etc. Another awesome blog post, hits the nail right on the head.xxxxxxxxxxxxx


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