Thoughts on Reading Time

Here’s a good question, from The Guardian: Who Stole Our Reading Time? Of course, the answer itself is no great mystery:

“Now, the reader is under assault from hundreds of television channels, 3D cinema, a computer-gaming business so large it dwarfs Hollywood, iPhones, Wii, YouTube, free commuter newspapers, an engorged celebrity culture, instant access to all the music ever recorded, 24-hour sports news, and DVD box-sets of shows … A leisure time that was already precious has been chewed into by text-messaging, Facebook and emails. Almost everyone I speak to claims that they “love books but just can’t find the time to read”. Well, they probably could — they’re just choosing to spend it differently.”

Sure, many more things are competing for our attention now. But it’s too convenient for us to blame the things; it’s still up to us to make a decision to read or not read, after all. And choosing to read means choosing not to do something else. But that also doesn’t mean it is always easy to resist those tempting distractions. When I need to carve out reading time, I prefer to remove myself from even the possibility of temptation: no email, no Internet, no iPhone. Being offline for an hour or two isn’t the end of the world (at least, that’s what I try to tell myself).

The Wall Street Journal (“Finding Time to Read”) chimes in with some additional helpful thoughts: “Reading simply fills all the interstitial moments in my day. I read with my coffee in the morning. I read on the subway, while waiting at the doctor’s office, while on hold with the cable company, in the checkout line at the supermarket and before falling asleep at night.”

And, Nicholas Carr talks about this topic in greater detail in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

For more perspective, here’s a 2009 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (which you can download right here). The survey queried some 13,000 people, covering all sorts of age groups and other demographic breakdowns. The usual caveats aside — graduate students probably read more than busy parents, people working 10–12 hour days may not have much reading time, etc. — the average is somewhere around 15–20 minute of reading a day. Kind of makes you want to pick up a book, doesn’t it? I do wonder what a 2012 survey would look like.

Want to read more? Here’s a few useful tips from Lifehacker: “How to Fit Reading Into Your Schedule and Actually Finish the Books You Want to Read.” I’m a proponent of Tip #1: Schedule a Daily Reading Time, because for the most part, we are creatures of habit. And keeping schedules can mean keeping up good habits.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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