Earlier in April I listened to a fantastic episode of Rob Hopkins’ podcast From What if to What Next? Hopkins, if you have not heard of him, is a writer and activist based in Totnes, England, and the founder of the Transition movement. He is a great believer in the power of our imagination to move us from what is to what might be. He begins each podcast by asking his guests to imagine themselves ten years in the future and, based on the guest’s area of expertise, what might the world look like if we put their ideas into practice? This particular podcast I listened to had Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) and Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) as guests and their imaginations centered on the question, what if we read more books?
I’ve read both of them and I have for years scoffed at the idea that digital media has changed the way I read. I mean, I still read big books and I read more now than I did when I read both of their books. But as I listened to them talk about how digital media had affected their own reading and how they both struggle to read books that they had read and loved years ago, I realized I am not as immune as I thought I was.
Because, while I still read difficult books, long books, and a lot of books, I, like Birkerts and Wolf, can no longer lose myself so completely in a book that I look up hours later and marvel at how long I have been away. I can still read for an hour or two but I am not able to read the same book for two hours at a stretch. I can generally last 30 minutes, an hour at most, with one book before I have to put it down and pick up a different book. The more I think about this, the crazier it is. Why, if I am really enjoying a book, do I have to trade it for a different book after an hour? I’ve been using the excuse that it’s because I have so many books on the go and it’s nice to change things up to keep my mind fresh.
And why do I need to even have three or four, or as Goodreads tells me, twelve books in progress at once? I remember when one book, maybe two, at a time was enough. I have been known to blame grad school as an English major, but after grad school for a couple years in the early 1990s I still only had a book or two in progress at any one time.
Listening to Birkerts and Wolf talk about digital culture and how it pulls at our attention, how it encourages us to not spend a lot of time on any one thing because we might miss something if we don’t check our email, our social media feeds, the news headlines, all the media streams flooding us in a deluge of information that our brains are not equipped to process, which means we feel constantly behind and in fear of missing out on something important. How often do I open my laptop to just check something real quick and lose an hour? Too often. All this time I have comforted myself with the thought that I still read lots of books, not realizing the insidiousness of digital media had eroded my attention span without me even noticing.
Thinking about my personal reading history, the number of in-progress books didn’t balloon until the internet intruded on my life. And I went from two books to three or four to five or six and now, apparently, twelve. What the heck? There is no way any reasonable person can adequately focus on reading twelve books at once. Juggling three or four books between classes in grad school was stressful and left me exhausted at the end of a semester. Yet now I think nothing about twelve, and it’s not because I am a better, more skillful reader.
The truth is, it’s because I can’t keep focused on one book. My mind starts to drift, and, dare I admit, I get bored. When I realized this I was ashamed and horrified. But listening to the lengths that Wolf and Birkerts have gone to for their own reading, I left off with the shame. The horror still simmers. I will eventually get to the end of those twelve books, some sooner than others. A few on my in-progress list have been on it for well over a year, which begs the question, am I actually reading them?
Even if I cut the number in half and give my attention regularly to six books, the amount of time I spend with each one is so fragmented that I am beginning to be surprised I can even make any kind of coherent thoughtful assessment about them. It’s no wonder I don’t get lost in a book when I am unable to spend much time sinking into it and allowing it to work its magic on me. I am only ever half there, my brain busy thinking about all those other books sitting next to me and what’s happening in them and—oh end of chapter for this book, let’s go see what I might be missing in that one! As though Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might be thrown together somewhere having a witty verbal sparring match without me knowing it and I will miss it because the words in the book changed and went on without me. Utterly ridiculous, but this is what digital culture has brought me to.
I find myself angry about it after I have had time to ruminate. How could I have become so careless? But it is not my fault. And if you are having any similar experiences, it is not your fault either. Google, Facebook, Twitter, all things digital are designed to feed our lizard brains and pull our attention hither and yon. Digital designers spend money and time figuring out how to keep our attention and how to keep it flitting from feed to link to video to photo and on and on until, oh, would you look at the time! I only meant to check when the library opens tomorrow.
Wolf’s and Birkerts’ answer to what if we read more books, was not me having twelve books on the go at once. It was about attention and attention span and what reading, truly reading a book, requires of us. If we reclaim our attention, we would be better off in so many ways and the world might be too.
I’ve been thinking about attention since reading Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing not long before hearing this podcast. And now I have been thinking about it even more. Because I am paying attention to the issue of attention, all sorts of related things have been popping up onto my radar and I am hoping to spend some time and attention ordering my thoughts about it here.
While I work on that, I am also working on paring back the number of in-progress books. This will take me some time to accomplish, will require me to alter some deeply ingrained habits and to work at expanding my attention span. I am already learning that it will not be easy. I have begun to limit my computer time and am re-instituting Screen-Free Fridays, something I used to do long ago and can’t even remember when I stopped. We are now on summer hours at my library and beginning this week I am half-days on Friday until mid-August. When I leave work on Fridays noon, the computer at home will not be turned on. The fact that when I just typed that and felt a little twinge affirms I am making a good decision on this.
I want my attention span back and I want to be the one who decides what I pay attention to.