How to make peace with your phone while reading

It's the great enemy of concentration, but can using your mobile phone actually enhance your enjoyment of a good book? A recent 'reading holiday' gave me the opportunity to find out.

mobile phones and reading
Ryan MacEachern / Penguin Books

On most summer holidays, phones come in pretty handy. You can use them to convert the price of a bottle of Riesling under the restaurant table, direct yourself via satellite to wherever the Game of Thrones walking tour starts or just take a quick panoramic of the sea view from your balcony, leaving the noisy building site just out of shot. 

But what about a holiday in the year 2020 AD, when, in all likelihood, your week off is going to look pretty much identical to your week on, only with the laptop closed? Unable to travel any further than the local park, I decided to devote my ‘holiday’ this year to reading. Not the luxurious, beach-based reading you fit in between waddling in the waves or ordering a margarita that may or may not come. Something more like those dedicated ‘reading weeks’ you had at university – only, y’know, with some actual reading involved. 

My book pile was carefully assembled in advance, waiting for me like a packed suitcase by the front door. One brand-new, much-hyped novel so I could stay a step ahead of my friends. One classic I was embarrassed not to have read yet, for a little literary glow up. One hefty non-fiction tome on a Serious Topic. And one book of poetry to act as a palette cleanser when all that got too much. 

'Step one: turn off email and social media notifications. That much was obvious.'

Never mind plates of octopus salad or fresh hotel cotton, mountain treks or that bit when you lie star-fished in the sea and pretend you’re floating off from your troubles in the detritus of a shipwreck. Instead, it was just going to be seven days of me and the open page – a journey of the mind rather than the body. Bliss. 

Except it didn’t really work out that way. No sooner had I found my spot in the local park – under a tree, nice and early, just as the sun began to butter the ground like a piece of toast – and got my book out, that I began to feel ‘the twitch’. It turns out that without roaming costs and time zones or the distraction of everything being new and a little bit confusing, your phone is still your phone, every bit as distracting and demanding as normal.

At this point I began to bargain with myself. Maybe my mobile could be an aide to my Big Week of Reading, if I used it right. Surely it was just a matter of mastery over technology. Step one: turn off email and social media notifications. That much was obvious. But I found myself idly picking it up and pulling down on my home screen anyway, like a rat suckling at a dry feeding tube. 

'Wikipedia pages are only one swipe from someone doing the Savage dance on TikTok'

My next experiment was to use my iPhone’s timer functions to set limits. Thirty minutes of uninterrupted reading, then an alarm would go off letting me know it’s OK to take a hit of Instagram. Except doing anything to a timer is the very opposite of relaxing, so I packed that in after five minutes.

The next day, under the same tree, I decided my phone could be of service to my reading in a more cerebral way. I’d use it to enhance my reading holiday. Whenever I came up upon a word I didn’t know, or a real life person of significance, or simply a clever-sounding idea – off I went to Google to find out more. I’m like David Foster Wallace, I thought, putting smart little footnotes on everything. Only Wikipedia pages about the Magna Carta are only ever one swipe away from someone doing the Savage dance on TikTok, so still I got nowhere.

On day four or five, I realised social media was the answer: I wasn’t sharing enough of my booki-day with the world. OK, there’s no stone cold fruit de mer or selfie of myself pretending to paddle board to share, but what about all these beautiful paragraphs I keep almost finishing? Are they not also joys that deserve to be seen by people feeling a bit bored? The problem was, I had to keep checking whether my carefully cropped lines from Mrs. Dalloway were getting enough recognition, the number of likes, shares and comments mingling with my own ongoing appraisal of the book making it impossible to tell whether I was enjoying it or not. In the end I gave up and scrolled the news.

The final day of my reading trip arrived, and this time I cracked it once and for all: how to make peace with your phone while you’re reading. 

I brushed the stones and twigs from my spot with my foot. 

Sat down, squinted at the sun. 

I opened a page.

And sighed with relief that I’d left the bloody thing at home.

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