Tag Archives: reading

Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away


I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.

The problem with reading online


Four years ago, I started an MA in music education at the Institute of Education in London. The first module was on the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and included the kind of books that I had been avoiding for 25 years, like Hanslick’s Vom musikalisch Schönen. With philosophy, there are no short cuts, you just have to read in depth and slowly.  Mid-term, I went to Malta for a short break to meet an old friend, and took my books with me, including an anthology of texts on the aesthetics of music in the original German. It’s one of my happiest memories of that time, sitting on my balcony, with nothing but a book, reading slowly, going over the same paragraph again and again until some of it made sense. Four years later, I’m still struggling to understand a lot of the same material now, but the pleasure is deep and immense when you realise that something once unfathomable has sunk in and become understood. It’s like watching a tree grow.

If I hadn’t started that MA, I would never have made the effort to achieve that understanding. Writing essays forces you to do grapple with other people’s thinking and writing, and searching, googling, information gathering is irrelevant to the task. The work is in your head. It’s deep, satisfying, and laborious.

So I knew exactly what Randy Connolly was talking about in his short presentation What’s wrong with online reading? You keep hearing about how wonderful the online world is now, how ‘everything’s on Google’ and children today are amazing, multi-tasking geniuses whose brains (as ‘digital natives’) will develop in ways that we oldies simply can’t understand because we didn’t grow up with the internet. The trouble is, despite the hype, there’s not a lot of evidence that this is really the case. What’s more, online reading is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s causing us to skim and forage without thinking a great deal, and we lose concentration as a result. Connolly’s interest in this subject started, in part, with an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘Given that this is a long article, and given our tendency to skim when things are on a screen, it’s probably best to download and print the article first.

Google can’t make us stupid of  course, that’s up to us. If we don’t take time to think, read carefully and stop scanning and foraging as our only mode of intellection, then we’ll end up – as even some academics admit – unable to read and concentrate in a sustained way. Connolly’s presentation is 141 slides long, but  doesn’t take more than about 5 minutes to go through because each slide has very small amounts of information on – which will ensure that you take it in. It’s well worth taking the time.

And if all this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like all my rants about the myth of multitasking.


Happy National Libraries Day – especially to Tooting Library and the IOE


I’m no Luddite. I was an early-adopter of computers and the internet. I earn about 25% of my salary from playing the piano, and 75% from being a pretty expert user of all kinds of software. I use the internet all the time for research, and I’d be lost without my computer and my iPhone.  The world is full of incredible opportunities now that were not available to me when I was an undergraduate or at school. That’s wonderful, and I use those opportunities all the time.

But not a week passes when I am not even more blissed out by libraries and what they have to offer.  This last few weeks I’ve been doing an ‘Info and Lit’ course at the IoE, and I’ve learned so much from our tutor Nazlin Bhimani in those sessions that I never got from sitting for hours in front of a screen. Through really good guidance and teaching, I’ve learned to make better use of the resources that I’ve already had available to me for years, and all because when you’ve got a real human in front of you, you learn how to use stuff, how to evaluate, what to ignore and avoid.

I’d live in the IOE library if I could, but I equally love my local library in Tooting, not least because it’s only 5 minutes away. I go there when I need to concentrate, somewhere quiet but where other people are working so you feel motivated to do the same. The staff are amazingly helpful – I’ve seen so many instances where they’ll help someone out with using the internet, teaching them how to search, for example, and nothing is too much trouble.  The study room has always been packed (but spacious) when I’ve been there.  They have lots of new books, a range of newspapers.

My favourite library moment was on Thursday this week. I’d been scrolling through the Musicology Must-reads over at the Taruskin challenge blog, and noticed Thomas Clifton’s Music as Heard, a book advocating a phenomenological approach to musical experience. As this is right up my particular research street, I decided to hunt it out. Could I find a copy anywhere? Not on Amazon,  not in the IoE library, and Abe Books were £90+ for the only two remaining copies. So I took my tutor’s advice, and searched the Senate House catalogue. And sure enough, there it was. When you know how hard-to-get a book is, the moment when you hold it in your hands is one of awe and excitement. And it’s a fabulous book.

Ironically, today was the day that I finally got a Kindle to see if would be any use to my parents. It’s not. As with most gadgets, they didn’t think about the elderly or people with poor motor skills.  I also thought I might be converted if I actually had one. I’m not. I hate it with a passion, and I hate the way that Amazon are helping people to forget what libraries do, and that you could go to a local charity shop and buy a paperback for 50p, and then give that to someone else.

But worst of all, the Kindle doesn’t supply you with the computer, the power, the wifi, the money, the quiet, the space, the chair, the desk, the teacher, the other like minded readers to sit and enjoy the space with. This is why Sadiq Khan was so right when he wrote this to Edward Lister at Wandsworth Council last year:

Popularity and utility cannot only be measured by the number of books issued in any given year – there is a wider social benefit to a community that comes from the local provision of good IT facilities, or a quiet place for children to do homework. (Sadiq Khan)

If you don’t believe that, go to your local library and have a look. Long live libraries.

Another group hit by library closures: the U3A



Education: The Age of Uncertainty is an impassioned but factual article in today’s Independent about the effect that library closures are having on the elderly, and in particular on members of the University of the Third Age (U3A).

Ian Searle writes:

The mass closure of public libraries is hitting older people and retired people who want to learn and keep their minds active. The sort of learning that goes on in the University of the Third Age (U3A) – the learning that retired people do because they want to do it, not because they need it for their careers – will be worst hit.

It’s a convincing argument, and I hope that the 250,000 members of U3A lobby government to make it strongly, but the specificity of the statement above  bothers me: it blurs the effect that the closures will have on everyone else. As I pointed out in a recent entry, my local library at least was full of young people.  Learning and the opportunity to gain access to what libraries have to offer – including a quiet and warm place to think – are important at any age, whether you ‘need it for your career’ or not.  The concept of a career in itself is fast becoming an anachronism, as people have to adapt to a very unpredictable and insecure job market.