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The End of Reading as We Knew It

I used to be able to read books a chapter at a time. Two or three or more, even. For the most engaging novels, I could spend an entire afternoon turning pages, getting up only because my Mom told me to go outside or because I had to eat or stretch my legs.

These days I struggle to focus like that. Do you?

Two articles came across my radar yesterday, confirming what I have thought and feared about my own reading habits since the dawn of the digital and social media era: I have lost a skill that was once at the core of my identity.

The end of reading as we knew it.

In I Have Forgotten How to Read, author Michael Harris says:

Turning, one evening, from my phone to a book, I set myself the task of reading a single chapter in one sitting. Simple. But I couldn’t. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. No stroke or disease clouded my way. Yet – if I’m being honest – the failure was also not a surprise.

— via The Globe & Mail

Like Michael, I also experience this. I settle in to read a novel or a nonfiction book, and before long my mind is restless. FOMO lurks. What am I missing out on? What are people talking about on Facebook and Twitter? Who’s showing cool things on Instagram? Am I missing any breaking news? Is anyone trying to reach me? Is there a new and hilarious dog meme that I simply must see NOW?

When I’m reading via Kindle, I’m wondering what others think about the passage, the work, the author. It’s so easy to click out of the book and into the hivemind. To do research about the book rather than actually read the book.


In the second article, Skim Reading is the New Normal. The Effect on Society is Profound, UCLA literacy scholar Maryanne Wolf, says:

Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading. it.

— via The Guardian

I’m embarrassed to disclose just how long it took me to read each article, through neither is very long. Rather it’s that my attention span, the one that even at age 7 was able to focus for hours on a Nancy Drew book, has pinched to a fraction of its pre-digital-age length.

Maryanne Wolf says people are more prone to skim when they set out to read.

“When the reading brain skims…we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own. “

— via The Guardian

But Adapting is Good, Right?

It feels bleak, but maybe that’s not the only way to look at it. Michael Harris of the first article cites the work of Maryann Wolf of the second article.

Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read…The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never “natural.” Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.

— via The Globe & Mail

I find that fascinating, but I’m not comforted. I feel like I have lost something precious. As Michael Harris says. “I know I’m not reading less, but I also know I’m reading worse.”

Me, too, Michael. Me, too.

Fellow digital immigrants, did you lose something, and are you lamenting it? Digital natives, what is your attention span like, and does it work for you?


This post is part of #MicroblogMondays. Whazzat? A post that’s not too long. Head to Stirrup Queens to join the fun.

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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17 Responses

  1. I am still a reader. I read non-fiction for 15 minutes in the morning. I set a timer and then get to a stopping point when the timer goes off. By reading 15 minutes at a time, I’m able to finish a non-fiction book in 1.5 to 2 weeks.

    I read fiction at night for about an hour or two. If I remember the games on my phone, I’m distracted. I’ll say to myself, “Oh, just play your five lives in Farm Heroes” and then get back to reading. Usually, if I give myself that inch, I take a mile. So I try not to give myself that inch. Because I really do want to read, too.

    I count how many books I read per year BUT I won’t do a challenge. My goal isn’t to read quickly but to enjoy what I read.

    I wonder if it helps that I read for longer bursts on paper. I read non-fiction on the screen because I have so many e-books right now in the queue and I usually want to highlight things. But I read fiction on paper. So I can’t switch apps.

  2. I have the same problem. I use to love sitting for hours, getting lost in a book, but now focusing on a novel takes training to remember those skills. Honestly, it’s why I’ve started taking over story time for Maddy and Teddy as reading loud is retraining me to sit and focus.

    Mel’s point about not reading on electronic devices is one I practice. I make a point of printing out all articles and literature that I want to focus on as the device is difficult to focus on. Yes, it’s bulkier, but I cannot focus on Kindles or e-Readers to save my life.

    May you find your reading skills returning (I’m working on mine too).

  3. I feel this. I find it harder to pick up a book vs. look at my phone. The phone offers its innumerable choices (NYT, WaPo, BuzzFeed, LinkedIn, etc). The book is just one option, and I may not like it, says my brain.

    But I enjoy reading a book WAY more than scrolling on my phone. Books make you think, and feel and talk.

    I still don’t always choose a book.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that piece, that the phone offers and array of attention-grabbing things and the book just one.

      I nod my head about both of your last 2 sentences!

  4. Oh my gosh, the term digital immigrant is now one of my favorites! I am with you on this. I am still a reader, and I read a lot, but my attention span is definitely hindered and I find my stamina to be less than it once was. I read something daily, but I find that since the smartphone I have that siren song calling to me and it helps if I keep the phone away from me when I’m reading. I do agree that deeper reading isn’t a natural thing for most, and it requires attention and focus which is in short supply lately. I like the kindle for the gym, but I also don’t have a fancy kindle and I’ve disabled other highlights and read with airplane mode on. I treat it like a futurebook, not like a media device. If that makes sense… I still prefer paper books, and there was a study done where you actually remember more of what you’ve read in a physical paper book than in an ebook, something to do with the mechanics of it?

    Also, I love this: “One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes.” Reading for me is sitting with other thoughts, other worlds… but this is why I cannot do knitting. I don’t want to spend so much time in my own! 🙂

    I’m glad you’re working on these reading skills, and I am going to do a better job of banishing the phone so I can read the way I used to, too.

  5. Oh, I definitely feel this! I checked out a book from the library a few months ago. I had it for 3 months, and wasn’t able to finish it before I couldn’t renew it anymore! I used to read ALL. THE. Time. I blamed it on the distraction of kids, but I know that’s not the whole story. I know my phone is the biggest distraction of all.

  6. I have always been a bit of a skimmer, but that may have increased a bit. I still read a lot of books, though. I don’t have a problem staying engaged in a story (or non-fiction book) that is interesting to me. And if it’s not interesting, I’ll either quit entirely, or skim to the end to see if I might need to rethink quitting. Every now and again, I’ll get bored with what I’m reading and decide to see what’s going on elsewhere for a while. Then I’ll come back to the book later, when I’m refreshed.

    But it is kind of a family tradition to find it unnecessary to focus on one thing at a time – we were always reading and watching TV or playing solitaire and watching TV or studying and listening to the radio. When we were building our house, I wanted an open floor plan so that I didn’t have to just be washing the dishes or cooking – I could be watching the kid or talking to my husband. Now, I’m reading articles on my computer, watching TV, talking to my husband, and playing on my phone.

    We have a lot more choices these days. But I do think you have to choose to read, and with so many more/easier options, most people choose otherwise.

  7. Me too. I read a paltry 15 books last year, and many of them were audiobooks I listened to when I was walking.

    My reading has plummeted since I stopped going to the gym. I used to prop up my iPad and read it whilst I did cardio, and then after the gym I’d often go to a cafe for a coffee,, and read for 20-30 minutes. I can’t remember the last time I settled in for a good read at a coffee shop.

    And yes, at home I tend to get distracted on my iPad. I have a book I’m enjoying, but somehow it has been impossible to finish it – it’s as if I feel guilty sitting reading, but if I’m “doing” things on my iPad or phone (whether it be reading and commenting on blogs, responding to messages, chatting with overseas relatives on whatsapp etc ) I feel more productive. When in fact I am not! Sigh.

    Maybe 2019 can be the year we bring back reading into our lives?

  8. How’s this for attention span? I merely skimmed your blog post the first time it popped into my reader (shortly after you posted it), & it’s taken me this long to come back, actually read it, and leave a comment. :p (I do this a lot when blog reading, actually.) Yikes! 🙁

    I read 27 books last year & exceeded my Goodreads challenge goal of 24. Yay me… but I used to read way, WAY more books, pre-Internet. “A core part of my identity” — absolutely. I am trying to make a conscious effort to read more books lately. I find I get a lot of reading done in bed, if I get ready & head there before I’m really ready to turn out the lights — so I’m trying to do that more.

    Funnily enough, I find I get the most books read when I’m “back home” visiting my parents, even when I have my digital distractions with me (phone & computer). Go figure. ..

  9. I’ve found myself feeling this more and more lately. And honestly, it makes my head buzz. It has changed my gaze. It makes me both more jumpy and more tired at the same time. I read one book a month with a book group, and it’s a struggle, but I *make* myself do it, because it’s something I used to love. I am so grateful that my kids get lost in books … my son just got a smartphone recently, but has no social media, which seems to make a difference. I miss that ability to tune out everything! (Which maybe I’ll reconnect with in India in just over a week?!)

    1. Social media is such a mixed blessing. If I’d known the loss it would bring, I may have taken steps to protect my ability to read, like Mel did. Now I have to get something back.

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