On Divided Attention

Price’s book about books reads like an anthology of ironies, including several that pertain directly to it. This book is self-consciously shaped by, and susceptible to, its own account of how we read now. Price takes divided attention for a virtue, and practically invites a reader to keep a device nearby to flesh out her examples. Almost every piece of data has its own story to tell. Perhaps more than any genre, nonfiction has been changed by the Internet, which turns a biography or a history book into a series of fascinating leads. Every reader brings her own curiosity to the printed text, and builds her own customized version out of adjacent or supplemental research... Though books have been mythologized as the one ‘non-database’ in a world of searchable content, readers have always ‘skipped and skimmed’ books, as Price points out, or rearranged them mentally, or composed their own tailored indexes for fast information retrieval. It is not unheard of to break a book’s binding and reorder its pages. I have a Latin lexicon from the seventeenth century, once owned by a clergyman. He essentially built his own search engine in it, affixing homemade calfskin tabs to its pages to mark the entries he consulted the most. Another copy of that book, with tabs in other spots, would be a different book. When a book sits next to the Internet, its authority as the final word on anything is automatically undermined.

Dan Chiasson, “Reader, I Googled It,” newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/02/reader-i-googled-it. An interesting review of Price’s recent, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading.