Historical Immersion and Contemporary Distraction

Many teachers, writers, and readers are concerned about the rise in distracted reading that digital technologies are often assumed to prompt. As we increasingly read on screens, and as students are taught and tested on digital devices, the common experience of distracted reading is calling attention to the nature of attention itself.

In a section of English 101 (Critical Reading and Composition) that met regularly in Rare Books, students approached academic writing by way of this public concern about popular reading habits—the differences between reading in print and reading on screens. Students read short stories in different formats including original editions, twenty-first paperbacks, and online editions. In class, they discussed their experiences reading the same story in more than one format. The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920, led students to refine the concepts of “distraction” and “attention” that are frequently invoked in popular discussions of reading online.








If we agree that online texts can encourage inattentive, discontinuous reading experiences, then what kinds of reading experiences might various historical print forms encourage? How might readers react, for example, to short stories published in periodicals, printed in narrow columns between full-page illustrated advertisements? Reading online can, of course, provide encyclopedic contextual information—it can be far easier to look up unfamiliar names and terms online, and some students benefit from using one tab to read a story and a second tab to search for relevant information and definitions. But as other students acknowledge, if a third tab is open to facebook, and possibly another for twitter, then today’s distractions can outweigh the benefits of quick searching capabilities. Students were asked to consider whether the helpful contextual information that reading online can provide might outweigh the loss of immersive, enchanted reading experiences that a printed book can foster.






Early in the semester, students discussed the concept of “enchanted reading,” a response to literature described by Rita Felski in her Uses of Literature. For Felski, enchantment names “a state of intense involvement, a sense of being so entirely caught up in an aesthetic object that nothing else seems to matter” (54). For other critics, psychologists, and readers, printed books tend to foster enchanted reading experiences while digital editions can instead encourage inattention and distraction.





Distracted reading, though, is not new. Poems have been published with disruptive footnotes and marginal glosses, novels have been published with extensive illustrations. Historical print forms could lead to difficulty in navigating from page to page, problems in maintaining plot continuity, and, in this case, the potential distractions of large illustrations and advertisements printed between the sections of Fitzgerald’s short story. But as twenty-first-century readers turning the pages of an early twentieth-century magazine, students experienced a different kind of distraction, one that they found aids in the comprehension of a historical era and a literary work. This kind of distraction is, many decided, productive. It seems to make historical distance easier to cross. Seeing the hairstyles, fashions, and consumer products so crucial to Fitzgerald’s story helped make sense of his characters’ actions. These distractions were historical rather than contemporary—they depict the unfamiliar world of a hundred years ago rather than returning us to the very familiar world of the present. These distractions also led, for some students, to a different kind of immersive reading experience, a level of engagement that comes much closer to the aesthetic enchantment that had initially seemed to be the polar opposite of distraction. 


Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Jeanne M. Britton
Curator, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
University of South Carolina

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