One point of consensus is that it is getting harder and harder to muster the deep attention that literature demands. In one sense, the Internet has made it easier to access literary materials – particularly the free, out-of-copyright materials found on sites like Project Gutenberg. But by speeding up the rhythm of life – and making it more difficult to adjust ourselves to the longer, slower rhythms of reading – the digital age has made genuine “access” more elusive. The upside is that these moments of true access, when they come, are all the more magical. As Sven Birkerts – author of 1994’s The Gutenberg Elegies and the dean of debates on digital reading – puts it, “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won.”
There is agreement too that prolonged periods of solitude – prerequisite for most forms of literary reading – are becoming scarcer and scarcer. In the liveliest and most original contribution to the volume, Drew Nelles also turns this apparent deficit into an asset. “When you read,” he notes, “you are by yourself, in a radical way – momentarily solitary and unplugged.” The reading experience suffers from any attempt at breaking this radical solitude. The two most conspicuous analog efforts at making reading social – readings and book clubs – are, Nelles says, “also the most irritating.” Digital efforts like Goodreads likewise “feel all wrong,” smacking of “enforced sociability.” For Nelles, the asocial nature of reading should, in a culture beset by sociality, be embraced. He closes his piece with a challenge: pick up a book, read it, but don’t talk about it – not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on Goodreads. “Keep it a secret – your secret. … Consider the independence this book gives you. Learn to be alone again.”
"For Christmas of 2013, I got a great present: I finally encountered someone else echoing the exact themes I've been banging on about for years."