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How an Antique Desk Slays the Monster of Modern Technology

My new antique reading desk, with chair and its sweet-a** flower-pattern seat

One's hanging wonderfully focuses the mind.

One's hangover wonderfully un-focuses it.

Such is my morning, the symbolic first day of summer.

It's not a bad hangover, but the minor headache and grogginess make deep work impractical, so I find myself looking at a new thing in my library: an antique reading desk (pictured above).

This Desk is Ridiculous

This desk and its accompanying little chair appear to be the most impractical things ever, but they've charmed me in the 72 hours since my in-laws gave them to me.

Keep in mind: I have a big desk on the other side of the room, with six drawers that are well-stocked with supplies, two overhead lights, an elevated shelf to hold pictures and other accouterments, and an attachment where my two monitors sit, elevated by a standing desk. Bonus: a deluxe ergonomic "back chair" on wheels.

I don't need that reading desk.

Its antique elegance is ridiculous and superfluous.

But I really like it.

It's Only Good for One Thing: Reading

I like its smallness. I like its simplicity: one flat top, with one open compartment underneath to hold a book or two, a pencil, and a coffee cup coaster.

I like its ridiculousness. What can you do with it that you can't do better someplace else?

Of course, I can read there, but I can do that at my big desk or in one of the comfortable upholstered chairs in my house.

But at that little desk, that's all I can do there: read.

Tucked in a corner, under natural light, I can only read.

Therein, I think, lies the source of its charm.

Reading with a Cell Phone Next to You is Like Having Sex While Getting Kicked in the Gentials

One's hanging wonderfully focuses the mind, and so does reading, with the added advantage that your corpse isn't carted away afterward.

The thing is, reading has gotten really freakin' hard.

This comes from a guy who "got on a reading kick" when he was 20 years old and decided he'd read everything worth reading and a few things not worth reading, then condense it all for everyone else to read.

Now in my 50s, I obviously fell way short of that quixotic aim and, just as obviously, I'm fine with it, realizing now that I'd have to live to age 700 to accomplish such a goal.

So of course my failure doesn't bother me.

But it does bother me that I don't read nearly as well as I used to.

It's now a universal problem. You can't open a screen without reading a diatribe or jeremiad about our inability to read because we can no longer concentrate.

The most recent is a wonderful guest essay by Molly Worthen at the New York Times: "Why Universities Should be More Like Monasteries."

She points out that students today are starved of focus and realize it, if only semi-consciously. The students want a "low-tech, introspective experience" and to develop "cognitive endurance."

She urges universities to ban technology from the classrooms and offer low-tech environments for freshmen, so they can develop their cognitive endurance.

Tellingly, she points out that, though students seem to realize they're cognitively starved, they're hopelessly clueless that screens are the reason. One professor has been trying to help students develop their ability to engage in lengthy reading sessions.

For his students, the struggle to read long texts is “tied up with the assumption that reading can happen while multitasking and constantly interacting with technologies that are making demands on their attention, even at the level of a second,” Dr. Peña-Guzmán said. “These draw you out of the flow of reading. You get back to the reading, but you have to restart the sentence or even the paragraph. Often, because of these technological interventions into the reading experience, students almost experience reading backward — as constant regress, without any sense of progress. The more time they spend, the less progress they make.”

He's right. I see teens around me reading all the time . . . with their cell phones on their laps, ready to pick it up every time it vibrates or pings. They don't seem to realize that reading with a cell phone on their laps is like having sex while getting kicked in the testicles.

Those stupid students.

The Goodness of Bondage

Of course, those students are all of us now.

I might know I can't concentrate with my phone next to me (as I write this, it's in the other room), but the rest of my day is jammed with distractions, most of them screens.

My phone, of course, but also the two monitors I mentioned previously, TVs, a Surface Pro laptop . . . to name just a few.

They create a habit of distraction, and it's a habit wholly inconsistent with the act of reading.

I need an area that shakes me from the habit of distraction, like a chain smoker who makes his friends bind his hands to a chair so he can't light up.

That's my new little desk.

There are no screens at that little desk. There's not even enough room for screens once my book is on it.

When I bind myself to that little desk, I have nothing to do.

But read.

And be charmed.