A Book in Hand is Worth…

March 26, 2017

Last week I substituted my handheld supercomputer with a book. This is after months of trying to read books regularly: I have attempted to change my habits consciously with Audible, iBooks, the Kindle app, but the convenience of my iPhone — it‘s right there in my pocket — coupled with the number of things I can accomplish on it1 frequently distract me from achieving such behavioural change.

The motivation to substitute the iPhone’s dominating place in my hand is two-fold. (1) To get through my pile of books, and (2) To rely less on the internet for the sum of knowledge available; it‘s shaping up to represent a modern version of the Library of Alexandria. The web feels angrier than ever and this distorts the quality of what’s published on it.

I have tried to leave the book in my bag as a reminder to read every time I pick something out, but this is just a placebo. I feel good about the act, but ultimately do not read the book. Holding it in my hand instead of the iPhone makes a world of difference to my subconscious mind. The Kindle is an obvious option to read books, but I want to get away from a digital screen.

Director‘s luck: Sapiens was on top of the pile. I had an epiphany reading this book; convenience and its unintended side-effects is covered extensively in it. Yuval Noah Harari draws analogies between the Agriculture Revolution and how Homo sapiens behave today in different contexts. He says we are caught in the Luxury Trap2 (p. 98, paperback print edition):

One of history‘s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can‘t live without it. […]

Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I‘ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I leave a more relaxed life?

Sadly not. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated. […]

Nobody plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal cultivation. A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a scorching sun.

Sounds familiar. Iatrogenesis means harm resulting from a treatment. For instance: Slack wants to kill email, but it‘s bringing forth workplace anxiety in a different form. The iPhone and its ecosystem simultaneously makes everything available, but also draws away from nearly everything else. Writing time is merged with photo-editing time is merged with the kingpin on mobile: communications — and I convince myself it is worth the investment in time and attention. This is modern millennial busywork. It‘s a cycle Homo Sapiens finds itself in often — there‘s 45,000 years of evidence to back up this very trait.

The result of this exercise has been net positive:

The change was not easy, it came after months of detours, experiments and frustration regarding my habits.

This is not an exercise in mindfulness. But I find it interesting that this inconvenience” brings with it mindfulness in a different setting altogether. I’m thinking and engaging with the world through the lens of the author with zero switching costs. In 2015, upon undertaking a spring cleaning for media I access, I hoped I would not have to do something like it in 2017. This experience has been a flushing of the mind — far more than a spring cleaning: tiny changes in habits lead to big behavioural changes. And vice versa.

Hey, look, I am inclined to write more as well.


  1. Phil Schiller, on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone: iPhone is how we make voice and FaceTime calls, how we shoot and share Live Photos and 4K videos, how we listen to streaming music, how we use social media, how we play games, how we get directions and find new places, how we pay for things, how we surf the web, do email, manage our contacts and calendars, how we listen to podcasts, watch TV, movies and sports, and how we manage our fitness and health.”

  2. Tangential: Parkinson‘s Law.