During a relaxing weekend at my in-law’s farm in south central Nebraska I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle online by Hugh McGuire that immediately caught my attention. Titled Why can’t we read anymore? McGuire writes of his own frustrations regarding his inability to concentrate long enough to read more than four books last year.
The reasons for that low number are, I guess, the same as your reasons for reading fewer books than you think you should have read last year: I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs.
It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening. And once you’ve finished one chapter, you have to get through another one. And usually a whole bunch more, before you can say “finished,” and get to the next. The next book. The next thing. The next possibility. Next, next, next.
The irony of this sad fact is that McGuire’s professional life revolves around books. He started LibriVox and Pressbooks and co-edited a book about the future of books called Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto: A Collection of Essays from the Bleeding Edge of Publishing.
So he knows books. Just can’t read them. And he’s not alone.
So what does McGuire think has caused his frustration and shorter attention span? The same thing most of us do: our connectivity to the Internet through our smartphones.
Most nights last year, I got into bed with a book — paper or electronic — and started. Reading. One word after the next. A sentence. Two sentences.
And then … I needed just a little something else. Something to tide me over. Something to scratch that little itch at the back of my mind — just a quick look at e-mail on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny tweet from William Gibson; to find, and follow, a link to a really good article in the New Yorker. E-mail again, just to be sure.
I find myself in these kinds of situations often, checking e-mail or Facebook, with nothing to gain except the stress of a work-related message that I can’t answer right now in any case.
It makes me feel vaguely dirty, reading my phone with my daughter doing something wonderful right next to me, like I’m sneaking a cigarette.
Or a crack pipe.
Once I was reading on my phone while my older daughter, 4 years old, was trying to talk to me. I didn’t quite hear what she had said. I was reading an article about North Korea. She grabbed my face in her two hands, pulled me toward her. “Look at me,” she said, “when I’m talking to you.”
She is right. I should.
You really should read it all.
As I read this (ironically, on my smartphone) I was laying on the couch digesting the third large holiday meal in 24 hours sitting amongst friends and family that we only get to see a few times a year if we’re lucky. Among these was my oldest son enjoying his first visit home in ten months. Yet here we were, half of us with our faces lost in the soft glow of our smart screens (the other half were out cold, sleeping off the roast beast).
I’ve been a reader all of my life, but most especially for the last twenty-five years. But even I have to admit that during the last 2-3 years I’ve noticed a large slowing down in my ability to read. I do most of my reading at the end of my day and have experienced the same frustrations as McGuire. It is taking me much longer to get through a book. Or, more likely, I begin a book only to lose interest a third or halfway through because it is taking forever for me to read. I’ve got two stacks next to my bed: those books I want to begin, and those books I’ve started but have not finished. The second pile has grown as large as the first.
At first I attributed this to my tendency to read books that, to be honest, might be a little above my pay grade. Theology, philosophy…stuff that should take you some time to digest. To test this theory out I picked two books to read during Advent: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI (144 pages) and The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans (125 pages). Both are smallish books and similar in size and typesetting. After two nights of struggling with Pope Benedict’s book I set it aside and opened Evans’ short story. I finished it in 4-5 nights. There was a time when I would have finished it in two (and in fact I read it in one night when I first received it as a gift in 1995.)
Is any of this scientific or definitive? No. Yet I have been feeling for quite some time that my time spent flipping through tiny screens devouring and re-devouring facts, opinions and information has diminished my ability to concentrate. But I also do not like the social effects of a group of people, especially family, sitting in the same room but otherwise disconnected. This has also attributed to my very sporadic writing/blogging this year. I just can’t seem to pull my thoughts together in an organized manner. It got to the point where I am undecided on whether to continue or not with the frustration of doing something that used to come so easily to me.
So what to do?
For one, Twitter is no longer accessible on my phone. This means I’ll probably rarely check use Twitter at all as I tend to shy away from it on my laptop at the office. This was a hard choice because the bulk of the best articles I discover and read I find on Twitter (like McGuire’s). Facebook remains, but I’m setting a timer on my phone to limit the minutes I spend on Facebook’s screens. I’ve also resolved to cut back even further on television. After cutting cable off two years ago I find that I’ve replaced it with an endless streaming of Netflix or Amazon Prime. Rather self-defeating.
My stack of books right now consists of around ten, a few of them rather smallish. The ones I’m most interested in finishing are the following:
- Wisdom from the Monastery (mentioned in my last Friday Five)
- Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw
- The Beauty of God’s House: Essays in Honor of Stratford Caldecott by Francesca Aran Murphy
- Elijah in Jerusalem by Michael O’Brien
- The Nice Things About Strangers by Paige Erickson (mentioned by me here)
I’ve already written of how much joy I’m getting out of Wisdom from the Monastery. I am really looking forward to reading the other four. Several months ago I had sent an email to my family stating that all I wanted for Christmas was a book from that list of three pictured above. I stated my reasons why and listed them at the top of my Amazon Wish List to make it easier for them. On Christmas morning before Mass I opened my present and found all three. Book nerd ecstasy.
I have begun to read books containing essays for whatever reason. I’ve begun (but alas, not finished) books containing essays by Chesterton, Joseph Pearce and Jay Nordlinger. But the beauty of those books is that you do not have to finish them all at once. They are usually disconnected essays of varying subjects so you can take your time. Stratford Caldecott was a favorite author whose writing I very much enjoyed before he was taken too soon by cancer a few years ago. What better essays than those on beauty by his friends as tribute?
Inspired by my reading of Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life this past autumn I’ve decided to dedicate 2016 primarily to the reading and journaling Dante’s Divine Comedy, some of which may wind up posted on this blog. Dreher recommended a few books, Shaw’s among them, so I’m excited to get started and began to read it while on the farm last weekend.
Elijah in Jerusalem is the long-awaited sequel to O’Brien’s first novel Father Elijah (1997). I hadn’t read that book in almost fifteen years so I re-read it in November. O’Brien has become my favorite author and I own all of his books. Island of the World remains perhaps my all-time favorite novel. Although it had been many years between readings I rediscovered why I’d enjoyed it so much the first time. In 2005 O’Brien wrote a prequel, Sophia House, and I haven’t decided whether I’ll pull it from my shelves to read before diving into Elijah in Jerusalem or not.
These are the books I’m committed to reading in 2016. While I know I’ll read more, my goal is to read these five for sure and drastically cut back on my “started-but-not-finished” pile. So I’m going to tackle the problem of my “digital dopamine” hits on my brain and utilize the strategy successfully employed by McGuire:
No more Twitter, Facebook, or article reading during the workday (hard).
No reading of random news articles (hard).
No smartphones or computers in the bedroom (easy).
No TV after dinner (it turns out, easy).
Instead, go straight to a quiet room or to bed, and start reading a book — usually on an e-reader (it turns out, easy). The shocking thing was how quickly my mind adapted to accommodate reading books again. I had expected to fight for that concentration — but I didn’t have to fight. With less digital input (no pre-bed TV, especially), extra time (no TV, again), and without a tempting digital device near at hand … there was time and space for my mind to settle into a book.
What a wonderful feeling it was.
I can’t wait.
For more information on Michael O’Brien, read The Urgency of this Present Moment: Learning from C.S. Lewis and Michael O’Brien. It is an interview with Rev. John Morrison, an Episcopal priest who is also a retired English teacher, speaker and author. Do not let the titles such as Father Elijah scare you into thinking he writes books of simple-minded religious twaddle. All the great themes regarding humanity are within his books. A Father’s Tale is another favorite. You would be doing yourself a grave disservice to dismiss him so easily. It’s been five years since I last read Island of the World. I’m adding it to my list in 2016. You should too.