Breaking the need for a nightly Netflix fix

Just like with other multimedia distractions, one can multitask with Netflix. But I still prefer books because pure attention is repaid with deep satisfaction

If, hypothetically, I wished to hurl my attention-consuming, Netflix-infected TV from my third-floor flat in a fit of pique, it might be best to do it stylishly. For that I would need a 1970s rock star who was adept at hotel-room trashing.

Like, say, Keith Richards.

There is a video on YouTube of The Rolling Stone guitarist gingerly lugging a TV with a pal, politely looking over a balcony to check for strangers, and then dropping it.

If you're wondering why I am fantasising about such extreme action, consider it my protest against Netflix. It is a visual drug that is further depleting my declining brain cells. It beckons me every night like The Sirens, those tunefully-singing creatures of Greek mythology who lured sailors onto the rocks. This is what Netflix does. It leaves my reading shipwrecked.

I was once a kid who walked 4km alone in Calcutta in the 1970s to watch every film that came to town and survived it. But now I am starting a movement against screens of all types. Their flickering glow looks like a halo, but this is clearly the devil's work.

Instagram and WhatsApp on phone, Netflix and websites on iPad, Amazon Prime on TV, it's all irresistible. Or as Shakespeare, who evidently knew of the Internet in the 1600s, wrote: "Tis true. There's magic in the web of it." Well, not quite. Twitter is a sewer of ugliness and a compendium of sickeningly adorable animal videos that I feel compelled to Like.

My books sit quietly, but Netflix messages me insistently. "Netflix tonight?" said Thursday's nagging e-mail. I'm pathetic, I actually peeked. Jane Eyre? Seriously? But if not the movies then I'm e-mailing after work, rifling through texts, skating through the possible benefits of owning Greenland. Am I smarter for all this? Of course not. More informed is not the same as well-informed, says my friend Mihir sagely, and then returns to iTunes.

Am I whining? Of course. May I also carp about how everyone has become a version of Pauline Kael, the former and formidable film critic of The New Yorker, who once said: "Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them."

My daughter insists, you must watch Breaking Bad. Haven't. A friend says, Stranger Things is fantastic. Ignored. So much I evade and yet still too much I watch. On my table my half-read books look at me with a sneer: "Et tu, idiot?" As a single man, with no dog to feed or walk, I am absent of excuse for not reading more.

Should I call Alan Kay, reader of "probably no more than 20,000" books, because I'm certain he doesn't watch Netflix? He's a computer scientist who, as Medium.com reports, reads a fair bit. "For over 70 years, Kay has been reading anywhere from four to 10 books a week". I am way behind.

On holiday, earlier this month, I wandered through 31/2 books in 10 days and it simply felt satisfying. I can still feel the cold of the brooding Scottish town sketched by crime writer Peter May. I am still transported by the climber Peter Croft, who is quoted in Mark Synnott's book, The Impossible Climb, on the subject of free-soloing, which is scaling high rock with nerve not rope.

Croft explains it as "a heightened type of perception... for a while it feels like you almost have super senses. Everything is more intense - the sounds of the swifts flying around or the colours of the sun going down. At lot of times I don't want to go down, I don't want it to end".

All this stays with me, deeper footprints in my brain than anything a TV serial might offer, like the line that begins Neil Gaiman's collection of non-fiction called The View From The Cheap Seats: "I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast".

Why read? Well, if nothing else, research suggests readers of books live longer. It makes sense, for reading calms the brain and stretches it like a limb in the gym. Words involve the exerting of the imagination and the exercising of reason. It is also a moment of utter quiet, where we sit on a favourite chair and disappear into the book. Words carry me further than pictures.

Netflix, mostly, asks little of me. But as an honest colleague says, she likes it because it allows her to multitask. She can walk on a treadmill and watch Godless on a phone, or check texts and answer an e-mail with half-an-eye on The Crown.

But I prefer books because they are demanding and they're mine. It is not a shared pastime. It also asks for the entire investment of my self. I cannot cut my nails when reading Gautam Bhatia's The Transformative Constitution for it requires absorption and logic. There is sometimes a challenge to reading as there is to all learning. Pure attention is repaid with deep satisfaction and it is more than fair exchange.

The problem must be age, the slow fraying of our concentration and the gathering conspiracy of distraction. In another time we pounded on typewriters, aware of little but the clattering dance of metal keys. Now, as we type on laptops, we're distracted by e-mail, espn.com, nytimes.com, so many little windows to the world drawing us away from total focus.

Books have been written on this new human infirmity, like The Distracted Mind, whose subtitle is rather rude: Ancient Brains In A High-Tech World. Perhaps we will all have to re-learn the art of concentration. Certainly the only place I find it is at 30,000 feet, where conversation is absent and phones silent, and where life is condensed to a cold whiskey, an open book and a brain humming as evenly as the aircraft's engines.

Since I am not meeting my minimum of four to five books a month, I call a presumed ally. Among his many, fine titles, Mr Kenny Chan, 67, is also senior store director of Kinokuniya, Singapore, a lovely, learned man who lives among printed pages and who surely must be challenged by the demon of Netflix.

Except Mr Chan, a man of many parts, enjoys it, watches it, believes that many serials lead people back to the source material which is books, and still finds time to read three to five books a week. Bah, a kindred spirit has turned out to be a traitor.

Fortunately my friend Samar is a lesser man like me. Annoyed by Netflix, he has decided to end his suffering by switching his evening entertainment from screens of any type to Oscar Wilde short stories, military history and Fado, a type of Portuguese music. It is a sound plan that merits some imitation.

A full divorce from home movies sounds too painful for me, but a negotiation with myself is under way. I will retain Netflix, have manfully not signed up with Amazon Prime and once gifted my Apple TV device to a friend. I have also, on weekdays, decided on a minimum 90 minutes of remote-free, uninterrupted reading after dinner.

Compromise has won. The TV's execution is stayed and there is no need to give Keith Richards a call. Instead it might be fitting to buy his 564-page book. It is called Life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 25, 2019, with the headline 'Breaking the need for a nightly Netflix fix'. Print Edition | Subscribe