Books on Paper Fight Analog Distractions


We're worried. With all of the things in the physical world -- parks and baseball, cars and cats, food and drink, duvet covers and lamps -- how will anyone get any reading done?


Can you concentrate on Flaubert when your cute cat is only a few feet away, or give your true devotion to Mr. Darcy when people are swimming in a pool nearby?

People who read books on paper are realizing that while they really want to be reading Dostoyevsky, the real world around them is pretty distracting with all of its opportunities for interacting with people, buying things in stores, and drinking coffee.

The telephone lurks tantalizingly in reach. Looking up a tricky word or unknown fact in the book is easily accomplished through yelling loudly across the room to someone who might know the answer. And some of the millions of people who have ever picked up a book only to put it back down again a few minutes have come away with the conclusion: It's hard to sit down and focus on reading.

If these paragraphs strike you as silly, I agree with you. Yet, they are a nearly word for word substitution of the latest anti-e-book story in today's New York Times. "Can you concentrate on Flaubert when Facebook is only a swipe away, or give your true devotion to Mr. Darcy while Twitter beckons?" goes the lede.

This story, like many of its ilk, suffers from a baseline problem: how often were people getting distracted before and how do we know things are worse now?

We notice when we are distracted by some newfangled app on a Kindle Fire. We do not notice when we are distracted by vacuuming the rug or going to watch television or daydreaming. Having read thousands of books in my day -- on paper -- I can assure you that the phenomenon of getting distracted while reading a book is not limited to e-books.

So, then the question becomes: does the user interface of the book matter so much? That is to say, does the paper book provide such a different reading experience as to tilt people ineluctably towards distraction?

First, the article provides no evidence aside from some people saying so:

"It's like trying to cook when there are little children around," said David Myers, 53, a systems administrator in Atlanta, who got a Kindle Fire tablet in December. "A child might do something silly and you've got to stop cooking and fix the problem and then return to cooking." ...

Or it's like trying to read when there are children around, regardless of format!

Second, the Times does all of its analysis on what's happening in your hand, but reading is an embodied experience. We're *in the world* while we read, and there have always, always, always been distractions in physical space. If the e-reader engages you more with the thing in your hand, even though the gadget itself is more distracting, that could be a net distraction win.

Third, let's assume the worst, that tablets are "temptresses" as one Times source puts it. OK. But don't we think that people will develop strategies to resist these temptations? What do we think going to the library when you need to study is? Humans respond to the novel technologies they encounter to reshape their experiences of them. If distraction is really bothering all these people, and they really want to read books, then they will find a way to do so.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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