“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.”
— David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Digital reading is a boon and a bane. The convenience of reading on my phone or tablet means I can read anywhere, but it also means more interruptions. Popup notifications are a series of attentional hurdles to resist or give in to. And because reading has become so social, I often pull myself from the text to look up a word, ask a someone about something, or Tweet a passage of particular beauty or ugliness. The downside is that I find it more difficult lately to be transported by a book: to lose track of time, forget myself, and be totally immersed in the world the author has created.
I’m thinking about this because I recently got into meditation and I realized it’s kind of like deep reading. One of the meditation metaphors that has worked for me is to think of a cloudy, turbulent sky. And then to think of the blue sky above it, the one I see if I’m on a plane and fly up through the clouds. Meditation isn’t so much about trying to banish the clouds but simply remembering what’s above them. Deep reading can feel like that, except instead of a clear blue sky, another world opens itself. Urges to stop and get online, worries about reading too slowly or too fast, about whether I should be reading something else, and, of course, a whole host of non-reading anxieties loosen their grip on me. My self-consciousness, my need to critique and assess, the racing thoughts that project me willy nilly into the past and the future (anywhere but here and now) recede. Yet, when I let go, I am be more focused and aware of language than ever.
I do better with meditation when I don’t let my expectations get in the way. I used to worry that I wasn’t breathing in the right way, and I’d get anxious and pulled out of the meditation. I eventually figured out that just paying attention to my breath is enough. Similarly, with immersive reading, I’m open to whatever the experience will be. I just pay attention and the language reveals itself. I used to think that meditation meant emptying my mind, but I learned that the mind is designed to think, and I can’t stop it from doing its job. Meditation is more about just paying attention to the thoughts than trying to grab up the positive ones and banish the negative ones. I think immersive reading is like that.
The last book the pulled me into deep reading was Jennifer Weiner’s new one, All Fall Down, about a thirty-something suburban professional blogger and mom, Allison, who starts taking pain meds as prescribed for a back injury, and ends up addicted to them. The cover image is a rollercoaster, a pretty apt metaphor for the experience of addiction, both writ small (the daily, even hourly cycle of calibrating the drug intake, the side effects, the lies) and writ large (the slide into addiction, the attempts at recovery, rehab, relapse). Allison’s addiction story unfolds like a slow motion car wreck, but even so, her life is punctuated by moments of great success, abiding love, and simple pleasures. I was on the roller coaster with her, pulled in by the propulsive plot, my empathy for the main character, and my weakness for unreliable narrators. There were difficult scenes, but I felt open to way they made me feel, and I trusted the writer to make them worthwhile. The outside distractions were still there, but they didn’t get traction. Even when the story made me sad or scared, the reading experience itself felt good.
Lest you think this is an anti-technology post, I should tell you that I got over my reluctance to meditate by finding the right app. And I definitely enjoy — maybe too much — the kind of scattershot, instrumental reading that the Internet encourages. But both meditation and deep reading encourage a combination of commitment and openness that the digital-social era can make harder to maintain. Just like meditation, being transported by a book quiets the constant stream of thoughts and connects me to something else. I hope I never lose the ability to experience the particular kind of flow that makes immersive reading one of the best kinds of pleasures.