Reading in the age of distraction

Metro Manila’s insane traffic congestion is an opportunity to read books. Reading is more productive and relaxing instead of cursing at drivers, enforcers, and pedestrians. It’s less risky than using a smartphone inside jeepneys, UV Express vans, and trains. It’s a matter of adjusting our perspectives. For example, a three-hour ride from Quezon City to Makati during the morning rush can be viewed as a precious time to catch up on our reading goals. When we scan the news or play a game on phones, we absorb visual images which is also a form of reading. Why not instead turn to the traditional way of reading as an alternative to mobile entertainment. Our minds are more focused when reading a book compared to surfing the Internet which bombards us with too much bytes of useless information, mindless distractions, and overrated tasks which can be done at home or work. We cannot eat or drink inside public transport vehicles but we can certainly feed our minds.

Because of inefficient services, we often spend several hours waiting in line. Reading can instantly convert the wasted time into something useful, educational, and even fun. Imagine being trapped in a room without WiFi and there is a long waiting time. Worse, the use of mobile phones is restricted. Reading a book of your choice is more pleasurable than constantly looking at the wall clock. It is better than being forced to watch silly infotainment TV ads. When your name or number is called, you move forward with a positive thought that you spent time wisely by choosing to enrich your knowledge of life and the world. This too has a calming effect which could hopefully prevent you from blaming overworked workers for bureaucratic deficiencies.

Reading in a public place is a nice feeling to experience. No, it won’t make you look lovably smart. People tend to see book readers as geeks. Two decades ago, those who tinker with gadgets in public are viewed as techie nerds. Today, those who hang out in public without a phone in hand are treated with suspicion.

But back to reading, it can enhance your attachment to a place. It can bind your memories of a particular nook to the scenes, characters, and ideas in the book you are reading. A book can make you remember of the smell of an obscure café, the surprising comfort of a wooden park bench, the retro music at the train station, or the cold temperature inside a provincial bus. You recall these impressions not because you read them somewhere but because you experienced them while reading a book. When you take a selfie with a book, it makes visible your intent to read something but it is more meaningful if you both read the book while sensing the reality of the reading moment.

What a delight to claim a space and declare it a reading territory. Marking a spot in public as a designated hub for reading. Think of malls, churches, schools, government buildings, and parks that can be targeted by readers. Smokers can no longer pollute the air with impunity that’s why book readers should inhabit the abandoned smoking corners and transform them into a reading place.

But we are also aware of the diminishing incentives to read. Infrastructures are designed in favor of money-making activities. Unfortunately, reading is not considered as a public activity that can yield significant returns. Thus the need for more aggressive readers to hype the act of reading, inspire others to do the same, and counter the use of smartphones as the ubiquitous way of exhibiting literacy in the 21st century.

This is a huge challenge given the immense popularity of Internet streaming to watch movies, play games, or lurk on social media. Our role is to demonstrate that reading is more fun and healthier than bingeing on Netflix. It takes several hours a day or week to complete a TV series whose storyline is stretched to lure more viewers. We are lulled into thinking that the repackaging of formula fiction is modern entertainment. Indeed, nostalgia works.

There are shows deserving our praise but do we really need to devour dozens of episodes in one sitting just to understand and appreciate impressive plotlines? Each Netflix series we finished watching is equivalent to how many books in terms of hours spent? We think Netflix is more satisfying to consume but books provide the same if not greater amount of drama, better description of people and landscapes, and original stories.

Perhaps e-books represent a wise option. Content downloaded from the cyberspace and is meant to be read. It is viable and increasingly made accessible but if our aim is to achieve some level of work-life balance, reading a printed book offers instant relief from the madness of virtual reality. A few hours of digital detox to soothe our Internet-addicted bodies.

Despite our fast-paced lifestyle, we could still set aside some time to read what’s trending on social media. If this is feasible, there’s more reason to find time for reading books. Motivate others to read. Discuss these books in public. Reading should not be relegated into mere academic pursuit.

Perhaps some are wary of making bad choices when reading books. It’s a risk but less harmful than what is peddled by Hollywood and Netflix. What we can do is persuade readers to be critical of the text they are reading. Yet we do not demand the same thing when people discuss the movies, TV shows, songs, and games they scavenge on the Internet. We assume that books ‘indoctrinate’ so therefore we have to be careful with our selection; but we can be eclectic with our online posting of movies and TV series? There are passive readers and Netflix subscribers but only the former are required to be intelligent and politically-correct about their decisions.

We are back to the basics. Threatened by armies of disinformation, our best weapon is the truth. Reading the truth, deciphering the truth, fighting for the truth. In the age of ephemeral attention, reading is an act we can pursue, promote, and steer towards our other political endeavors. (

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email:

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