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.
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?
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a young adult daughter, writes from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.
Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.