Book historian Tina Lupton’s comparative study of reading habits in the 18th century and modern day text consumption reveals that readers have always faced the same fundamental problems when it comes to finding time to read. People today are just more distracted than ever.
Most of us know the feeling of not having time to read – or at least feeling like we do not have time to read. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find time for undistracted reading, and it is easy to blame modern developments like digital technology. But contrary to what you might think, not having time to read is an old phenomenon. For centuries, people have been struggling to balance the desire for undistracted reading with their professional and personal duties, says Tina Lupton, historian of books and reading, who has just defended her doctoral thesis “Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century” at the University of Copenhagen.
– My case studies in 18th century time use and reading show that these conversations have been going on for a long time. Almost as soon as people in the 18th century had access to text on a large scale, they began to worry about not being able to find enough time to read. They thought about books and reading as a task that could never be finished. I have studied 18th century women working with secretarial work, always engaged in writing and reading texts, but who saw themselves as never settling down to read the kind of text that they imagined they should be reading, primarily classical older texts. Instead they were reading the daily news, new kinds of fiction, work texts etc. Just as we today feel that the internet is bad reading, whereas reading books and printed papers is good, Tina Lupton argues.
Reading is a part of many people’s work life, and more people are reading more texts than ever before in history. So the conversations about the loss of reading involve a kind of fallacy, Tina Lupton points out:
– In quantifiable terms, we can’t talk about a loss of texts. But we’re doing less settled print reading, and we’ve become more distracted readers. Reading digitally allows us to switch in a rapid succession of engagement with different kinds of text that catch our attention. As opposed to print reading that locks us into a kind of journey through a text, simply by virtue of its format.
More leisure equals more reading
As part of her research, Tina Lupton has focused on the unevenness of time use in contemporary societies – even the ones that think of themselves as uniform in many ways. For instance, Danes work less than Americans, and the Danish idea of working too hard is very different from the American idea of working too hard. This difference in time use affects reading habits, she says.