13 January 2020

Finding the time to read has never been easy


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.

Finding time to read is becoming increasingly difficult. But Tina Lupton's study shows that  finding time to read was just as difficult for 18th century readers. 

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.

- Our work life balance is very important for our reading habits, and statistically Danes read more and consume more text per capita than most other populations. In England, for instance, if a new novel does well, its maximum market is 15.000 copies. Interestingly, though, the same novel could easily sell 5000 copies in Denmark – although England has about 10 time as many inhabitants than Denmark. Reading is a good marker to measure leisure time, Tina Lupton says, and adds:

- In the Christian context, Sunday was the day of not working, and Danes are good at keeping this tradition. Many Danes go to their summerhouses for the weekend. Here they play board games, go for walks and read books – often because there is no wifi in the summerhouse. Sundays have always been closely associated with reading. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many people became readers because of the Sunday schools, which were the first institutions to educate working class readers. Later, Sunday became the day you read the thick paper or the big novel, and in the television era, Sunday evening was the day of the great television shows. In the history of modernity, Sundays have always been associated with a slower kind of quality consumption of entertainment, and the fact that Danes still keep Sunday as day of leisure probably affects reading habits.

- In Denmark, we often have long weekends and holidays, whereas in the Anglo-American context people have far fewer days away from work. But these non-rhythmic parts of a bigger life rhythm make us use our different capacities for attention: We can be very efficient and work hard, but we can also switch off and slow down. I think the Danish way of life, even if it’s not as simple as saying that it makes people better readers, makes people more versatile and supports different rhythms of attention.

Reading leaves no traces for historians

The history of reading is a difficult field, because it is not easy to reconstruct how and how much people read.

- People tend not to leave notes about what they read and when they read. As a researcher you can get very excited about old books with margin notes, but they’re pretty rare. Really absorbed reading is one of the acts that leave the least traces in the world, and it’s almost invisible to historians. And even if you have the data, it’s difficult to know what you should take from them: if a woman in 1890 borrowed a certain book three times in one year, you would think she really loved that book. But the book you take home from the library again and again is often the one that you don’t read and have to renew, so the data don’t really tell you anything. Tracking a book’s circulation doesn’t necessarily tell you much about how books are used, says Tina Lupton who also argues that finding leisure time and time to read is part of a bigger political issue about who does what kind of work and how much leisure time people have.

- People who have had access to that experience of settled reading have always been people in a very particular class position: they have not been workers, haven’t had households to run, food to prepare, children to take care of etc. It is easy to romanticize the heavy intense reading, but it has only been for very privileged people with a lot of free time.

Unsatisfactory reading

Although the feeling we have of not being able to read enough and in the way we want has always been there, Tina Lupton believes that we see something new these years:

- It is true when we say that 20 years ago we were different kinds of readers. I belong to a generation that have gone from being one kind of reader to being another kind of reader, so I don’t want to deny that there is something historically specific about our experience, and that there is something real about the loss that we feel, she says, and adds:

- If 60-70 percent of my argument is that we read as much as we’ve done always, then the last 30 percent are about the fact that in many cases our lives have actually changed. We read more than we ever did, but generally we read in a different way that doesn’t have time dedicated to it. In our lifetime, we’ve seen a change from a pattern of living where there would be certain times of the week, day, year and even lifetime that we would dedicate to consuming books. We have gone from that to a steady, but never quite satisfactory, consumption of text.