The Help Desk: How do I put down the phone and pick up the book?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My willpower seems to be diminished to the point of nothingness. I can’t stay off my phone long enough to read a damn book. When I’m reading, my phone pings and I check it and then I start reading about politics and then it’s two hours later and my book is sitting there unread. I miss reading! Any idea how to help me stop staring at my phone all the time?

Shanna, South Park

Dear Shanna,

"Willpower" is one of the rare and beautiful words in the English language that embeds the seeds of its success into itself, much like "auto-erotic asphyxiation." But when it comes to the internet, we all have chains that bind us. Mine is routinely checking local and state inmate rosters and corrections databases for people I know, a charming tic inspired by my biological father, who before his death managed to rack up five DUIs without my knowledge.

When I need a break from my own neuroses, I like to pick out a book and invite a human friend to coffee. I buy her a drink of her choosing and then ask about life, love, and her plans for the day. I listen to her talk about her cat issues and work issues, I smile and frown when appropriate. While she is distracted by my human empathy and generosity, I slip my phone into her purse. When she leaves, I am free to enjoy several hours of uninterrupted reading or writing in my favorite coffee shop.

Eventually, I must hunt her down and confront her about the phone. If she insists that no, she does not have my phone, I will gently bring up her 2014 arrest for petty theft. She will be horrified – moreso when she discovers the phone in her purse. I have introduced self-doubt into her mind, another uniquely human emotion. If she is a decent friend, she will offer to buy me dinner to make up for my trouble.

This delicate dance cannot often be repeated – eventually, your friends will catch on and learn to buy purses that zip. However, nearly limitless variations exist – leaving your phone in others people's cars or homes, for example. The key is not to flex your willpower but to separate yourself from the very thing that cripples it, freeing your mind to turn to truly healthy and pleasurable things, like the immersive world of a good book.