Last night on Radio4’s Front Row novelist Susan Hill, talking to Mark Lawson about her new book (which charts a year in which she resisted buying new books, instead finally reading or re-reading those from her own  collection), revealed that she had also used that year to restrict her use of the internet, in particular her internet reading.

She had previously become aware that her concentration was not what it used to be and  suggested that “if you use the internet a lot you notice your concentration begins to become fragmented and you don’t have that complete concentration for two or three hours.”

With these comments she was not making a moral judgment, she was not condemning the internet for its pernicious, ruinous effects on the human ability to read; rather she was explaining how reading on the internet can embed the habit of skim-reading, of flitting from hyperlink to hyperlink, as most web pages encourage sound-bite (or rather: vision-bite) reading.

Skim-reading is of course a useful skill, especially for (budding) academics whose bread & butter is to read – and to read quickly. Students need to be able to scan across pages and articles to quickly decide which material can be safely ignored and which needs to be read more deeply. A problem arises if the habit of skim-reading comes to dominate one’s reading behaviour and affects one’s concentration so that settling down to really immerse oneself in a book becomes difficult.

In January 2008 researchers at the UCL published a briefing paper entitled “information behaviour of the researcher of the future”, in which they reported that there is now a tendency towards “shallow, horizontal, ‘flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries.” (They also noted, importantly, that this applied to everyone, from undergraduates to professors, i.e. that it was not something the “google generation” did, but rather all of us).an old man reading

I have noticed that my reading habits have changed over the last few years now that I spend large amounts of time in front of a computer, for work, research, study, leisure. On the rare occasions that I switch all electronic media off & settle down with a book, be it for pleasure or work, it takes me an alarmingly long time to stop fidgeting, to stop wanting to “just quickly” google this factoid or that half-thought or even just to update my anonymous readers on twitter “wow guess wht- im readn a real book & switched off comp 2 do it. Yay. (only now i switchd bck on 2 tell u)”.

The internet is one of the most fabulous things to have come to us, the idea of giving it up seems not only impossible but preposterous: for what reason would one give up *the* research tool? But there has to be equilibrium. Reading on a (networked) computer invites fracturing one’s concentration, or at least it invites the less disciplined amongst us to do so (just quickly checking my email, hey is that a new blogpost, ha ha, failblog! I wonder what’s on at the Picturehouse, what exactly is a guava, etc etc).

In order to maintain an equilibrium, perhaps it is good practice to shut down for a few hours a day, to switch the machine off (and the [i]phone), and turn one’s mind to a printed paper, or a physical book. Perhaps even today’s students should not “never be out of touch”.

Picture by  pedrosimoes7 on flickr.