Why reading is the perfect antidote to multitasking.
As amazing as it is that print books survive and even flourish in this digital age, it is perhaps more amazing that reading — the ultimate leisure pursuit — endures amid the frenetic multitasking of our times.
People text while driving (they really do!), talk on the cellphone while paying for groceries, and do everything from mowing the lawn to walking the baby carriage with earbuds piping in the music that apparently is essential to life.
Yes, sometimes it’s an audiobook piping through those earbuds, but people mostly still read books by moving their eyes across the page or screen while they’re sitting still. Curling up with a good book in front of a fire is still the ideal non-activity for a cold winter day. Sitting there, doing nothing but transforming those words into daydreams in our head.
Reading is essentially a colossal waste of time, at least as measured by the standards that seem to matter these days: earnings, accomplishments, destinations visited, fitness — those things we can check off, accumulate, or otherwise brag about.
There are other leisure activities that are also a waste of time — watching movies, TV, or sports, for instance, though these are most often enjoyed in company. They are generally passive, mindless experiences that require little engagement.
Reading is a solo, unshared experience that is antithetical to multitasking. It is not, of course, a waste of time by the standards that it has classically been measured by; it entertains us with humor, moves us with cathartic emotion, whisks us away to faraway exotic places or times, broadens our horizons, informs us, enriches us.
This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is imaginative, but not made up; it can inform us as much as nonfiction. I know a lot more about West African geography, for instance, after reading Robert Wilson’s noir thriller Instruments of Darkness and following his protagonist as he shuttles along the Gold Coast between Lomé, Cotonou, Accra, and Lagos solving his mystery.
John Taliaferro’s biography of John Hay, All the Great Prizes, meanwhile, gives me an insight into how to live. Hay, whose stupendous career stretched from working as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary in the White House to serving as secretary of state under Teddy Roosevelt, nonetheless was an ace at leisure. He retreated periodically to a summer home in New Hampshire, writing to a friend, “We like the gentle squalor of it, the incredible idleness. There is absolutely nothing to do from morning till night.”
The demands of our hectic lives — real ones like working at a job that used to be performed by three people and self-imposed ones like finding the trendiest new restaurant for dinner — make it hard to appreciate this kind of idleness.
Carving out the time and energy for real leisure becomes a challenge in these circumstances. Reading, the quintessential leisure activity, can set the stage for the ultimate indulgence — really doing nothing with our thoughts but letting them bounce around in our heads. Walking without music or purpose, sitting on the porch or staring out the window, vegging out without the blare of a TV or stereo.
There is talk these days of “mindful living,” connecting to the present moment without racing ahead, iPhone in hand, keeping to an agenda. Reading can help. It is a brake on a fast world. If you can find time to read, you will slow down. Read more, do less.
Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, DC-based journalist and writer, is author of the historical thriller The Grand Mirage, set in 1910 in the Middle East.