A woman reading in a chair surrounded by distractions.

Do You Require Noise?

When you read, how long does it take before the first distractions appear? For me, it’s less then a minute.

We’ve forgotten how to be alone, and reading is a solitary activity. It requires time by yourself in silence. Author David Foster Wallace pointed out that people feel a sense of dread about having to be alone and to be quiet (“David Foster Wallace unedited interview (2003),” 00:30:06 – 00:30-26). Dread is the perfect word. Not boredom or concern, but dread – that creeping sense that something is wrong and we have to take immediate action to fix it.

We think we need peace and quiet because the kids are too loud or the neighbor is in her garage running a miter saw, but the truth is that when we finally get that quiet, we can’t handle it – we fill it with something. I sometimes (instinctively) turn on music or even white noise when I read a book.

Wallace’s comment hits home though. It’s not that we don’t like to read or that we can’t find the time, it’s that reading a book feels unproductive. Unless we’re pushing buttons on a screen, running wild with business meetings, and (for the love of God) multi-tasking, then we’re failing, right?

In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burekman argues that we’ve forgotten how to relax. We’ve gotten ourselves so amped up on “getting things done” that leisure or relaxation somehow feels like it’s not enough (142). For many, reading a book qualifies as a relaxation. It doesn’t directly add to our bank accounts, prestige, or sense of accomplishment, and like other forms of leisure (enjoying a walk, a day gardening, or learning to paint), we’re conditioned to feel bad about doing it.

Next time you sit down to read, catch yourself in this feeling. Acknowledge it for what it is and try to get past it. To read a challenging book is one of the best things you can do with your time. It will improve your patience, focus, and (if you’re paying attention) intelligence. And learning to sit in silence is good for your mental health – at least it has been for mine. See if you can dedicate at least 30 minutes today to reading. Embrace the silence and be with your book.

Until tomorrow, read slowly – take notes – apply the ideas.



Works Cited:

Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. First paperback edition, Picador, 2023.

“David Foster Wallace unedited interview (2003).” YouTube, uploaded by Manufacturing Intellect, 25 Dec. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGLzWdT7vGc&t=1809s

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