Digital addictions mean we can't read books anymore. And that's a problem.

To read a novel, once upon a time, all you had to do was suspend your disbelief. Now you have to suspend your belief that the world will end if you lose digital access for a few hours. That's a shame. Because reading is still the best way to lose yourself, in my opinion. 

Han Sang-kyun/Yonhap/AP/File
A man walks past banners advertising smartphones by Samsung and Apple at a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 22, 2013.

Chances are that in the next few seconds something will lure you away from this essay: an incoming text, an email, a sexier headline on this page, even a link within this piece. For those of you who will succumb to one of these distractions, I bid you farewell and hope that we’ll meet again on Twitter, whose format was perfectly designed for our new culture of interruption.

For those of you who just checked email or your Instagram feed and have returned to this piece, welcome back. I’m not offended. This is the new world order.

Office workers are interrupted – or self-interrupt – roughly every three minutes, according to recent studies. And it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task. That’s according to an article in The Wall Street Journal that references the work of Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction. Now I’m no math whiz, but doesn’t that mean that the typical office worker never really gets back on task?

A recent study reported on observed teens in their normal homework/study environments – bedroom, library, kitchen table. They were told to work on an important school assignment for 15 minutes. Although they knew they were being observed, the vast majority of students didn’t make it past two minutes without texting or checking social media.

But this is not a generational thing. More than 60 percent of adults have smart phones, which means most of us have willingly turned ourselves into Pavlov’s dogs, edgy and distracted, awaiting the next stimuli. I see people of all ages around me abandoning the moment they’re in to search for something better. We do it at meetings, during conversations with our spouses or children, at restaurants and baseball games. I’m not pointing fingers; I do it, too. It’s almost impossible not to.

My friend Kevin, a writer and filmmaker in his 40s, recently did something about all the digital distraction in his life: He turned in his iPhone 5 and got a flip phone. Within days, he was a new man. He reports being more focused, more creative, calmer, happier. He says he’s able to read books again, to get lost in a novel or a long carefully-crafted argument.

Kevin may be one of the few people out there to go back to a flip phone, but he’s not the first person to wonder if he’d lost the ability to read books. Nicholas Carr started writing “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain,” after realizing that he couldn’t focus long enough to get engaged in a book anymore. Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist at Tufts University and one of the world’s leading experts on the study of reading, had to re-train herself to read long-form fiction. In a Washington Post article, she recounts not being able to get past the first page of a Herman Hesse novel. She spent two weeks taking a break from the Internet to help her regain the cognitive focus necessary to read.

If these intellectual giants are having trouble reading, how do you think your teenager is doing? Not very well, according to a new survey by Common Sense Media, which found that the number of teens that never (or hardly ever) read for pleasure has tripled in the past three decades. About half of 17 year olds admit that they only read for pleasure once or twice a year.

To read a novel, once upon a time, all you had to do was suspend your disbelief. Now you have to suspend your belief that the world will end if you lose digital access for a few hours. To enter the story, to really escape, you have to unplug. And that’s just not an option for so many people today.

And that’s a shame. Because reading is still the best way to lose yourself, in my opinion. Some might argue for meditation or yoga, but reading is the one activity that gets me completely outside of my self. Great fiction increases our empathic powers and loosens ego’s grip. When I enter the mind of a carefully drawn character, I stop picking at all the scabs of my emotional life, at least for a while. I forget about upcoming presentations, I stop keeping score, and I relax.

Every year my family spends a week at the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I spend the week on the couch – it’s too distracting to read at the beach – with two fat novels. I come home refreshed, not by sun and sand, but by fiction. I am lighter because, for a week, I am freed from the burden of lugging myself around.

To read is at once to live in the moment and to escape time. It’s as close to spirituality as some of us can get. And it won’t happen if we can’t let go of disbelief – and our smart phones – for at least a few hours at a time.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising. 

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