spacer The Role of Distractions:
A reading lesson
from Japan

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What do Japanese commuters and forgotten
laptops have in common with unread books?

by Jim Trelease, © 2004, 2007, 2008

"T"he security gates at Seattle's airport, Japanese commuters, and that unfinished book on the dining room table all have something in common. Something, in fact, that grows increasingly common in American homes. Wherever there is an abundance of aliteracy, there is an abundance of these items.

security art 1security art 2security art 3security art 4

At one point or another, most adults have experienced the frustration of trying to do something against a rising tide of interruptions until finally we give up. It was not the difficulty of the task but the constant interruptions. Try to paint a landscape or write a letter with the phone ringing every ten minutes.

Now consider the role such interruptions play in reading. When people tell me they don't have enough time to read, I restrain the impulse to laugh out loud and instead ask,"How many hours were you alive yesterday?" They think about that for a moment and reply, "Twenty-four."

Indeed, everyone of every color, creed, and position gets the name number of hours and minutes every day. It's usually not the hours but our priorities that determine what we have time for. Those who value the NBA over reading will always find time to watch basketball on TV but struggle to find time to read.

But there is another factor that I overlooked for many years: "distractions." The more distractions you have, the more difficult it becomes to read for any length of time — even for those who truly enjoy reading.

Reading requires both time and concentration. I know there is a handful of people who can read and watch TV at the same time but they are rare enough to ignore for the purposes of discussion. Whenever you cease to concentrate on what you are reading, you cease to comprehend. We've all found ourselves reaching the end of a paragraph or page, only to find we have no idea what we just read. We had either started to fall asleep or we started thinking of something other than what we were reading. Indeed, we were no longer reading but "looking" — allowing our eyes but not our mind to scan the words.

Enter the security checkpoints at Seattle-Tacoma airport in Washington. What do they have in common with those unread books? Plenty. In a three-month period following the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, travelers "forgot" 115 laptop computers at the security checkpoints, compared to only three computers in a comparable period a year earlier.

Why the difference? The multiple distractions facing the traveler carrying that laptop. Beyond the harrying delay, there is the initial ID check, then the laptop must be removed from luggage, placed in a container and sent through separately. Then any metal or tin pocket materials must be sent through, along with coat and shoes, and finally the person walks through — whereupon they may be selected for random screening in which their entire body is scanned with a sensor-wand, their belt buckles and foot arches checked for hidden explosives, and then their shoes are scanned. And what of the laptop? Easily forgotten amidst the distractions. And it's not as though the owner doesn't think it's important. Indeed, the laptop to the business traveler can be the equivalent of a first-born child. The object is forgotten because the person's concentration has been broken by distractions.

Enter the 'thumb tribe' to japanese subways

train station art 1train station art 2train station art 3train station art 4This lesson in broken concentration or distractions is further demonstrated in Japan. For the last half century, Japan has been extolled for its high literacy rate, it's schools declared by numerous international studies as first rate, and its publishing industry among the world's most successful. Much of Japan's reading richness can be attributed to its vast number of rail commuters. For hours each day, the pragmatic Japanese commuter used the time to read books, magazines, and newspapers en route to and from work.

And then came the "thumb tribe," as one wag called them. Recent decades have seen a technology wave inundate Japan and its culture — a wave that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Indeed, if any place could be called a gadget nation it is Japan. I first encountered the "thumb tribe" term in an essay by Howard W. French, the New York Times Tokyo bureau chief ("The Rising Sun Sets on Japanese Publishing," The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 10, 2000, p. 51).

hand device2hand device 1spacerThis "tribe" is the new breed of commuter, the descendants of those who used to readhouse art their way to work but now play computer games, tap-tap-tap their Palm Pilots, and dial/converse incessantly on cell phones. As a result, French reports, the last decade has seen Japanese book sales drop from 900 million to 700 million copies, and paperback sales dropped from 300 million to 230 million. It's not that the books are less interesting these days in Japan. It's the volume of distractions.

The lesson here for Americans is obvious. If we expect to continue as a literate nation — limited as that might be — we will need to learn to control our distractions. We don't have to eliminate them — that's an impossibility, barring a worldwide power failure.

Consider the number of distractions in the modern home
that were absent 30 years ago:

  1. Three televisions sets instead of one, including one in the child's bedroom (60 percent)
  2. More than 100 cable channels
  3. At least one VCR-DVD player
  4. Videos/DVD's outnumbering books
  5. The Internet
  6. Computer games (Nintendo, Game Boy, etc.)
  7. At least three cordless telephones or cell phones
  8. Community shopping malls open seven days and six nights a week.
  9. Health spa membership

   Not much can be done to downsize other people's distractions, but we certainly can curtail our own. Furthermore, it doesn't require all that much time to read a sizable amount of print. Back in the late 1970s I did an experiment for one year. Dennis Kelly of USA Today duplicated that in 1991 and came up with the same results: If you read for 20 minutes a day, six days a week, how much would you end up reading in one year?

3000 pages in 104 hours

• 4 of Dickens' longest novels or
• 5 Judith Krantz novels or
• 21 John D. MacDonald mysteries
624 picture books

   On the other hand, if you took the 104 hours and watched TV, say a favorite show, and never watched repeats of that show, that would the equal of:

8 seasons of "Roseanne"

   So culturally it's not the need for more time as much as the need to discipline or structure the time we already have. A large part of that is controlling the distractions that fracture or dissipate our time bank. Which brings us to the late Wilbur Schramm's "fraction of selection." Schramm was the founder of mass communication as a science and through research developed a fascinating theory of why we read (or don't read) and why we choose whatever it is we read. More on that can be found at Fraction of Selection. It explains much of Japan's and America's current reading woes.

What has manga produced among Japanese readers?

WHEN the manga comic books blossomed in the U.S., the eventual hope was that it would take a generation that had shown little interest in reading and ignite it. And it did — they became avid manga readers to the extent that mainstream book stores devoted whole sections to manga. But will they ever graduate from manga into something more sophisticated?

Meanwhile, back in Japan where it all began, a manga generation of young adults has morphed into a strange new creature: cellphone novelists. In 2007, among the top 10 bestselling Japanese novels, five were romance novels originally created and read on cellphones and structured in the simplistic language of text messages. The year's number one bestseller was a debut romance written for the cellphone and/or computer and read by 25 million people before moving to book form.

Needless to say, Japanese literati are neither encouraged nor pleased at this latest phase of cultural literacy. The New York Times gave the phenomenon page one coverage in "Thumbs Race as Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular" on Jan. 20, 2008.


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