I tend to be slow to adopt new technology. I was probably the last person on the block to have dial-up internet service. I still have a landline. And I held out on getting a smartphone until just last year. But once I adopt a new technology I turn into an addict.
Computer scientist and work habit guru Cal Newport warns about smartphone addiction. He has a suggestion for breaking habitual phone checking. When you’re out and about simply don’t check your phone, even when you’re in a long line at the post office. Newport’s reasoning is that by constantly checking your phone you’re training yourself to be a shallow thinker.
But there’s still all those long, boring lines to deal with. What about reading a book instead? Newport might not agree, but at least it’s better than checking a phone. I’m hoping that a little more book reading might help counteract my shortened attention span (which I blame on the internet).
A short history of tiny books
One of the convenient things about a smart phone is that it puts the whole internet in your pocket. But long before Snapchat people carried miniature books. Prayer books and the bible were popular in miniature form. In the 19th century, improved printing technology brought a wider variety of tiny books aimed at travelers.
In the 20th century the miniature book became an end in itself. Rather than utility, miniature books are now objects to collect. This is not what I’m interested in. Rather, I’m looking for books that are small (non necessarily miniature) and convenient to carry while on the train or running errands.
Practical small books
Penguin has a long history of publishing books in smallish (not miniature) form. Since the 90s I’ve occasionally picked up their inexpensive and short classics series such as Thoreau’s essay Walking and Michel De Montaigne’s Four Essays. Kelly just got me their Little Black Classics Boxed Set which includes 80 works of short fiction and non-fiction by authors as varied as Samuel Pepys, Edith Wharton and Dante.
But the first book I started my cellphone alternative experiment with is Ammianus Marcellinus’ History Books 14-19 in an edition that’s part of the Loeb Classical Library. Loeb books are handsome, small and sturdy hardbacks with English on one page and Latin or Greek on the opposite page. Marcellinus is an entertaining Roman historian whose extant books chronicle the tumultuous years around the time of Constantine. So far it’s even more lurid than the updates on our current presidential election I get when I glace at the iPhone.
Yes, you can read books on a smartphone, but I still think that the medium of a paper book lends itself to developing a greater ability to focus. And as Cal Newport suggests, anyone who can focus on a problem in depth for a long period of time will be more valuable than those of us with the attention span of a flea. My prediction is that the cool kids will be reading tiny books.