Cooped up in a Bookstore, Just to Stop Reading

February 8, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 8 4 min read

The rustle of textbook pages turning, the hasty unzipping of oversized book bags hardly disrupts this venue’s overflowing intellectual energy. The pounding clatter of fingers pressed against greasy laptop keyboards – a soothing symphony to knowledge, it seems – fills the second-floor air, redolent of fresh Starbucks coffee. College students donning the ubiquitous ‘H’ logo, tourists doing likewise, a few bums clad in sweatpants, and the other denizens of Cambridge flock here, traveling up the cascading staircase past the stack of Malcolm Gladwell books to check out all three floors of the establishment.

It is June 2009 and I take my place among the overstressed, sleepless, and nascent literati at the Harvard Coop, a popular bookstore just outside the campus of one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. School is never out here. A seventeen-year-old high school student, I wasn’t researching a thesis. However, I had enrolled in two creative writing classes for the summer and desperately needed to begin on my final project: a piece of creative non-fiction of up to fifteen pages.

Hours had flown by in my dorm room in Harvard Yard’s Thayer Hall without progress. Instead, I had voraciously consumed my eclectic – and completely electronic – literary diet of news, soccer blogs, and The New Yorker online. Reading was, and still is, my favorite tool of procrastination – and how easy it is thanks to the Internet! I am loathe to brand my online perusing a “waste” of time – in fact, I’ve probably learned more about writing this way than I have in school – but, for all the putative benefits of this side-reading, it gets me off track. Fast.

I’m not alone though. According to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study, kids ages 8-18 spend over seven and a half hours a day glued to computers, cell phones, televisions, or other electronic media. What is more, the authors of the study note that today’s youth actually get 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content through multitasking. Any teenager will tell you this isn’t remotely surprising – and, for me, it instantly recalls the image of my friends instinctively whipping out their cell phones to furiously text, even during a conversation or while watching TV.

Still, I’m a bit of an outlier. According to the study, only one in ten young people reported reading newspapers or magazines online; for those who did read online, the average time spent on this activity was a mere 21 minutes.

It’s just so easy to get immersed in a piece. A mere click on my IBM laptop opens up the Chrome browser, and from there, the stories, videos, and links tantalize me thanks to the myriad gadgets on my iGoogle page. I really want to finish writing the overture, the introduction to my piece – but what if Nick Kristof posts a new blog entry, what if that famous soccer player tweets me back, or what if someone wrote on my Facebook wall? I can’t resist. It takes less than a second, so I just hit the “F” key and “Enter” to check the ubiquitous social-networking site once more.

Three notifications.

But I had to get my assignment done: a four to fifteen page piece for my creative nonfiction class. And as they say, desperate times…call for one to cut off the Internet.

So I planted myself firming at the place with the spottiest wireless reception on campus: The Harvard Coop bookstore.

There, I thought, I could focus, motivated by a collegiate atmosphere teeming with brilliance, students tapping away at their literary masterpieces on pearl white Macbooks or furiously scribbling proofs of theorems belonging to esoteric branches of mathematics.

Buoyed by my change of milieu (and lack of Internet), I sat, ordered a coffee, wrote – and actually got several pages done in a few hours.

But never at the Coop did I realize the obvious irony of my situation. A student, who procrastinates by reading (of all things), must hole himself up at none other than a bookstore… in order to do his work and stop reading. Perfect sense, right?

It was my professor who had to point this irony out to me as we conferenced over the writing process and the piece.

My myopia speaks to the differences between my peer group (dubbed Gen M^2 by the Kaiser Family Foundation study) and those only just slightly older. Despite the fact that I had, on many occasions, spent several hours reading books off the shelves at the Coop, I paradoxically saw it, a comprehensive bookstore, as the only place where I would not succumb to my proclivity for procrastination – the only place where I would not read. In hindsight, it seems that Harvard’s cavernous Widener library would be the only place more inane for me to go at the time.

But why didn’t I realize my folly?

Perhaps it’s just the incipient laziness of my generation. Reading something online – a blog post, a news story, a feature article – is downright quicker than pulling out a book. You can scan, highlight – and if you lose interest – move on to another work in a matter of seconds. While this raises the question of whether “reading” online is tantamount to just leafing and scanning through a print copy, it’s efficient and easy.

And with high-speed Internet essentially universal, I see no logical reason to physically use a book when everything is more conveniently online, on a screen. In fact, I could have theoretically completed all of my assigned readings for my two classes using the Internet in lieu of in my expensive textbooks; in many cases, I still did that regardless of the fact that I had bought the book. My peers would likely do the same; the Kaiser study reveals that the only media activity that actually failed to increase among young people over the past ten years is traditional print media. Indeed, the study indicates a roughly 25% drop in print newspaper and magazine readership since 1999. Why? The answer lies in said convenience, as well as the Internet-saturated, online-only culture in which I have grown up.

Mine is the generation of the Kindle – er, iPad. Apart from the little remaining sentiment felt for the hard copy, we are inexorably moving entirely online. And as for those last remnants of nostalgia, our inherent resistance to change? They are the life support to which current print media clings. The problem is, sooner rather than later, the support will wither, wane, and expire as the online revolution – one which I experienced on a Cambridge summer day at the Coop, one which lives each time a teen types a text message – tweets on.

has contributed articles and essays to the New York Times, The New Inquiry, Guernica, and Sports Illustrated. In the fall, he will be a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Yale.


  1. I procrastinate doing homework by reading–articles, blogs, stories. So I completely relate.

    I hope bookstores never disappear. They’re my favorite hangout spot, admittedly.

  2. I have a lot of trouble getting serious reading done online. It might be that there’s too much to read in the first place or it may be that the formatting of the whole thing does not work right with my brain to make me read well. I prefer hard copy.

  3. I’m 19 and a lit student in college – my day usually begins with me waking up to a bowl of oatmeal and an hour or two of catching up with blogs, essays, book reviews, tweets and emails online. I agree that reading and writing is enticing and accessible with these vast interwebs, and downright dangerous to productivity sometimes. You wanna lose a few valuable hours? Try reading through a new webcomic, or trawling through Wikipedia (ever heard of the Little Entente? You will have in a sec).

  4. I’m no doubt showing my age (I’m just 41 for heaven’s sake), but only last year did I get home access to the internet, which lead to setting up a blog, which lead to buying a laptop. I enjoy blogging, but the Twitter thing, which I’ve never tried, leaves me cold. There are some sites – dare I say this one – that present text well. But on the whole, for me, reading is most pleasurable when it’s a physical book in my hand. I love how how the real book, which is such a perfectly simple invention, can do the most miraculously complex things. Whilst I’m sure I’ll now be a little more techno-savvy in the future, I can’t ever see truly great – ‘great’ as in profound…and soulful – reading experiences happening through the interwebs. Cheers, Nigel.

  5. Nigel,

    I don’t think it’s just age at all. I’m 23 and I feel as strongly as you do, more so probably. I read a lot online, but that is almost all content that is only available online, and I work on a computer all day, so.

    Besides the comfort of holding a book, of not staring at a screen, of being whever you want to be, of being able to write in the margins and underline, you know, besides all those advantages, I just don’t believe that the “reading” being done online is the same actual process, with the same thought. I mean, this article mentions the constant distractions online, which are only growing, and then claims that is reading being done? I don’t know how you’re supposed to read an actual book, much less something long and difficult, on an e-device, in-between checking your e-mail.

  6. The problem isn’t that everything is available online making everything faster and easier to access. That’s only part of the problem. The real problem is that everything is free. Newspapers for which people paid money 15 years ago are available online in their entirety, for free! Blogs and social media sites only support this free form of news. Don’t get me wrong I’m in no way against blogs and social media. On the contrary, I love them! But people write them for free. It’s a free-time activity for them. Newspapers are different. The people behind those articles work their butts off and end up getting paid only a fraction of what they should get. Support paid online newspapers and then we might once again see people picking up physical copies of magazines and newspapers.

  7. jr, the free model will change as content providers attempt to make up for lost print revenues, and after you are firmly addicted to a site’s content.

    the internet, as a medium for media, is still being born. all this free content won’t last; or, where it does, it won’t be that valuable to you. eventually, you might find yourself paying to access your favorite social networking account.

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