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Your Problem With Reading Might Be Centuries Old

Updated: Oct 28, 2023


reading habits in 18th century

Has that book been sitting on my shelf for ages?

Should I give it a try again?

Well, I probably won't have enough time for that. ‍I'll read it tomorrow.

Have you ever said this to yourself?

Reading habits in 18th century

Finding time for uninterrupted reading is becoming increasingly difficult. And it is easy to blame the modern world and digital technology.

But contrary to what you might think, it's not a modern-day phenomenon only.

For centuries, people have struggled with the balance between uninterrupted reading and hectics of daily life, says literature and reading researcher Tina Lupton, who has written the doctoral thesis 'Reading and the Time Management in the Eighteenth Century' at the University of Copenhagen.

I've studied 18th-century female secretaries who were always engaged in writing and reading texts, but who perceived themselves as someone who never sat down to read the texts they imagined they should read - which primarily were classic older texts.

Instead, they read news, new forms of fiction, working texts, etc. Tina Lupton explains.

We read more than ever

Tina also says that quantitatively, we are reading more than ever before, but we read less in print and we have become more distracted readers.

As part of the research, Tine Lupton took a look at how much time do modern societies spend on reading.

Danes read more than most other nations and this is closely related to work-life balance.

In Denmark, we regularly have long weekends and holidays, whereas people in, for example, England and the USA have far fewer days off. We can be very effective and work hard, but we can also shut down and slow down.

This - among other things - makes people more versatile and supports different forms of attention, says Tina Lupton.

In Denmark, we regularly have long weekends and holidays, whereas people in, for example, England and the USA have far fewer days off.

But the fact that we regularly break with the great rhythm of life sharpens our attention in a positive direction: We can be very effective and work hard, but we can also shut down and slow down.

I think the Danish lifestyle - although not as simple as saying it makes people better readers - makes people more versatile and supports different forms of attention", says Tina Lupton.

Difficult research

Tina says her research was tricky, as reconstructing reading habits and how much people read, was not easy.

If, for example, a woman in 1890 borrowed a particular book three times, one might think it was because she was crazy about it. But often, the book that you bring back from the library over and over is the one you don't read and therefore need to renew.

This had made the research difficult and data hard to interpret.

What to make out of this?

If 60-70 percent of my argument is that we read as much as we always did, then the last 30-40 percent is that... ...we read more than ever before, but we read in a different way where we don't always make time for it. In the past, we had a pattern where certain times of the day or week or year could be dedicated to reading.

That changed now and we are exposed to text all day.

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