Fresh Ideas: It is still a novel idea to read books



I’m happy to be a member of “the best little book club in Carson City,” which has been meeting for 20 years. We’ve read 169 books. Our first book was The Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner; the latest was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

In that time we’ve seen plenty of changes in how we read. Some of us now read mostly on e-readers. We all spend a lot of time on laptops, smart phones, and tablets, but we still gather monthly to talk about a book we all read.

Lately I’ve noticed it’s harder to settle into a book. My attention has been changed by all the time I spend online. I scan an article, press links to other articles, check Facebook, review my Google alerts. As Patrick Kinsley wrote in the Guardian, “we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other.“

A movement has sprung up to counteract this attention deficit — slow reading, “the intentional reduction in the speed of reading.”

Some studies show readers absorb less on an e-reader than on paper.

In a recent study, subjects were asked to read a short story. Half read on an e-reader, half a paper book. The subjects were asked to place plot points in the order in which they occurred: those who read the paper book did significantly better in remembering the plot.

When I recently read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House I started out skimming internet-style and realized not only was I absorbing little, I was bored. So I vowed to myself to read every single word.

It was worth the effort, because after the initial struggle Victorian London opened up before me and I was lost. I lived for two weeks in “London.. as much mud in the streets, as if all the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be so wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. …”

Not only is the scene set down to the last splash of cold mud, but the Victorian worldview emerges right there on the first page of the book.

Then more than the next 900 wonderful pages, Dickens skewers the pompous and the cruel, describing a savagely unequal society where the wealthy gossip in drawing rooms while orphans die on the street.

It all sounded uncomfortably familiar. As historian Barbara Tuchman entitled her history of the 14th Century, Bleak House holds up “a distant mirror” to how we live now. I found myself wishing for a Dickens for our time, which has plenty of greed and cruelty in need of skewering.

Then I remembered The Goldfinch, especially its dead-on description of a semi-deserted subdivision on the fringes of Las Vegas: “Most of the houses looked as though they’d never been lived in…The boarded-up windows gave them a blind, battered, uneven look, as of faces beaten and bandaged. As we walked, the air of abandonment grew more and more disturbing, as if we were roaming a planet depopulated by radiation or disease.”

Inhabited by a motley collection of refugees, the Great Recession-era Las Vegas subdivision depicted in The Goldfinch is our 21st-century version of the dire and desperate squat in Bleak House called Tom-all-Alone’s. We still do have some Dickens — Donna Tartt and many more — for our age. If only we can concentrate long enough to read them.

Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change at


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