What If We Read More Books?

pile of books on a table

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.

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24 thoughts on “What If We Read More Books?

  1. And, now, at the end of your wonderful post, which I absolutely love, I’m going to mention an app. LOL

    But only because using an app to track time for various activities (there are tonnes, I chose two that each had a different strength, one for a week, one for a month) helped me realize what I was spending my time on. And I still use an app that tracks my viewing (partly because if the number of hours surges, I reconsider, but mainly because I can never remember which episode I’m on in various series). It helped me “find” (i.e. use) time for more of the things that I want to do, once I could see patterns and re-think, it’s been so, so helpful. Of course you can also track it manually but, for me, a big thing is digital time, so an app that monitors each site/platform/etc. separately, really helped to capture small pockets of time while I was “just checking one thing” *ahem*

    Anyway, you’re talking about attention (see, I was paying attention :)) but I feel like it’s integrally related to time management because the opportunities that we have (create?), to pay closer attention, are related to how much time we believe that we have for those activities.

    I’m pretty sure that, even after I listen to this podcast, I’ll still have a dozen books in my stack at any given moment. I’ve got a lot of reading moods and I have to keep them all happy. But maybe I’ll find it’s not just about my being a moody reader…will report back. 🙂

    1. LOL BIP. Your tracking apps sound super interesting. Which ones do you use?

      I suspect part of the attention issue is related to, or could be related to time management, but I would argue not much of it, at least for me. Those times I go online to check something really quick and emerge 30 minutes later not even having looked up what I had originally intended, have nothing to do with how much time I have because most of the time I am looking real quick planning on doing something else immediately after I check. But my brain gets so triggered with all the stuff online it forgets that I don’t have time, or did not want to make the time. Then I am either rushing around or worse, can no longer do what I had planned. Does that make sense?

      1. I’ve added this podcast subscription to my feed and they all sound so great that I think I’ll actually start at the beginning. There are dozens of time tracking options, but I used Rescuetime (which I paid for, for three months–by then I had the data I wanted, very straightforward) and a second one which was free (and seems to have been bought out since). There’s also one which lets you “grow a forest” by leaving your device unattended, but my phone has never been an issue for me, so I didn’t have much fun with that one. LOL

        The crucial element for me was being able to add all the websites that I visited frequently to calculate those “little but not so little” bits of time (it also calculates general web time if that’s all one wants). The app I continue to use to log my viewing is TVTime (it also includes movies). https://www.tvtime.com/ If you join that one, you’ll find me at BIP (and of course I’m always looking for good shows because I can’t read ALL day *smirks*).

        It’s still a time management issue, I believe…if your time was managed more attentively, your attention would already be directed to other activities and there wouldn’t be an opportunity to go down those rabbit holes. BUT that’s not to say that these platforms and digitization are not *designed* to take hold of our attention and give it a good shake until we sit down and obediently scroll or click or stare. *grins* They are! So if that’s what you’re saying, then I totally agree with that. The solution for me was to take control of the parts I can change. But it might not work for everyone. Because it’s humbling and sometimes embarrassing to have to face up to the reality of your online time usage. Like seeing exactly what song you’ve been playing most frequently on your playlist. Hee hee

        1. I only found the podcast a year or so ago BIP and there are so many episodes I have a long way to go in listening to them all. But that’s ok 🙂 Thanks for the information about the time tracking apps. For my own curiosity I might give one or two of them a try. My phone is not an issue either, just my computer.

          Ok, I see where you are coming from in regards to time management. But managing time attentively requires attention–ha! 😉 And a lack of attention–or our distractibility especially when it comes to things digital–is what keeps us from being able to manage our time better. Digital platforms are designed to keep us scrolling and clicking and distracted. We get little dopamine hits in our brains from it. And all that digital distraction spills over into our analog life, shortened attention span creep. So I think what Wolf and Birkerts are arguing is that by reading more, we can begin to reclaim our attention span, stretch it out and strengthen it to counteract the erosion of it by the various digital platforms. There is more than one way to work at lengthening our attention spans, but as readers I think we will happily choose books over most other options 🙂

          1. Heheh Well, maybe it’s partly a chicken-and-egg question at heart. Or, it becomes one, given the tendency to rely more, not less, on the devices that have been engineered to claim our time and attention (and as society changes around us to facilitate these habits, unquestioningly).

            Tme tracking worked for me cuz I couldn’t accept what I learned about my habits. Like, telling myself that I couldn’t exercise more, but faced with the hours I was dedicating to particular e-habits, it was clear that I was choosing to do one thing and not the other (and by no small amount). So seeing my tendencies (when allowed to run unchecked, and being vulnerable to the app and system developers’ whims), that’ encouraged me to confine the habits that were eroding the time I truly wanted to direct to other activities. I still do all those things (LOL) but I manage the time around them so carefully that I am much less likely to fall into the trap. So in the context of their model, it sounds like I’ve forced that kind of reclamation by travelling another route, but heading for the same destination? But of course I agree, that for readers, it would make sense to test the theory with books. Although, even readers also tend to say that they would read “x” if only they had more time. So I think we’re still chickening and egging.

            I still haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but Mr BIP listened to their recent ep about redefining wealth. My podcast list TBL is starting to swell almost as intensively as my TBR and TBW lists. I might have to take another run at my schedules and plans. 😀

            1. Hahaha BIP! I was thinking it could be a chicken and egg argument too! There have always been distractions. Before the internet it was video games and before that television and before that I’m sure there was something else! But I think the amount of distraction these days is unprecedented in many ways.

              Your honesty and discipline in figuring out how you use your time is admirable!

              Oh, you’ve got Mr BIP listening to the podcast too! I like it! My podcast list has gone from two to no way do I have time to listen to all these over the past year. And I just recently found another one that no longer has new episodes but plenty of older ones called ReWild Yourself that is super interesting and thought-provoking. At least with podcasts I can do other things while listening 🙂

  2. I can spend hours reading the same book, and often, do and I rarely have two books on the go at the same time, sometimes I’ll read a non-fiction in daytime and fiction at bedtime as I can’t concentrate so much when I’m tired. But I’ve dodged Twitter, Instagram and do very little on Facebook. Maybe I’m too old for it all – but I like it that way!
    I’m intrigued about your library summer hours, I’ve never heard of that before.

    1. It sounds like you have managed to not get sucked into the online world as much as some of us have. Well done! I’s like to be on Facebook not at all but so many of the community groups I am part of communicate through FB that I am not able to avoid it.

      As for my work schedule, I get to leave early on Friday as a nice way to use up a lot of extra time off that accumulated during the year. My library does have summer hours though due to the academic schedule of the law school so we are only open M – F from 8 – 5 and no nights and weekends.

  3. Such a fascinating topic and so glad you brought this up. I feel like this is me too. I used to read so much more and now I wonder why I can’t…. Well, it’s because I usually spend no more than an hour with a book before I “have” to go do something. And, that something is usually go look at a computer screen. Ridiculous. I love the idea of screen-free Fridays. I need to organize my schedule better so that I can devote more time to reading or even other things that I enjoy. I look forward to hearing how this goes for you!

    1. That I “have” to go do something feeling is crazy isn’t it Iliana? I hope you are able to find a way to organize your schedule differently. My first Screen-Free Friday went really well!

  4. I noticed this a couple of years ago and have been working on it — actively trying to stay engaged in my book without getting restless or distracted. It’s getting better, but it is work! Arg! I don’t usually read for more than an hour at a time anyway — I rarely sit down for that length of time except for work, until I go to bed. I used to have TIME to read for more than an hour at a stretch, but I just don’t anymore. So, I read anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours once I get in bed, and that’s usually it. If I have a long plane ride, I can read for the entire time, although I do find my mind wanders a bit occasionally on those long flights. As long as I don’t have my phone with me (no screens in the bedroom!) I don’t find myself distracted. But if I bring the iPad or phone into my room “just to look something up” then I’m totally distracted and will want to look up words or historical figures or whatever else, and then get further distracted when I check my email, etc. A couple of years ago I switched to only reading one book at a time and that’s helped. I do have a separate book for in the bathroom (right now it’s an MFK Fisher anthology) and a book of essays in my car, but those don’t count in my mind because they are site-specific and I work my way through them without switching either. Actually I am co-reading Anna Karenina right now along with whatever else I’m reading, but that’s because I can only take so much Tolstoy before I’m ready for something else! I will say that my attention span has greatly improved post-election. Take that as you will!

    1. I admire your efforts to stay engaged with your reading! I hear you on not having the time to read for long periods. I certainly don’t during the week, but I usually do on weekends and that’s when I struggle most. No screens in the bedroom for me either! The 30-45 minutes during the week I get to read in bed are the best times and when I feel most focused, except when I am tired and start to fall asleep but that’s a whole other issue. I have only been reading three books these last few days, two at home and one at work, and it’s been really nice. My brain feels less cluttered. I am both looking forward to and dreading Screen-Free Fridays! I hope you are able to find some screen-free time yourself. In the podcast Birkerts and his wife go to a tiny town in Italy every year or two that has no internet. If only we were all so lucky!

  5. I think you’re on to something, Stefanie, about getting “bored” or antsy while reading, even a book we enjoy. I often feel the same way. I can’t seem to read for more than 30 minutes at a time without getting the urge to do something else. I read more books than I did before I got a smart phone, but I wonder if I have less retention and engagement than I did before. Surely I do. Hmmm. I think I need to reassess my habits.

    1. It’s crazy isn’t it Laila? I actually caught myself thinking while reading recently, this is a great book but I’m bored! So far these last few days I have only been reading three books, a poetry book and a nonfiction book at home, and a third book that I only read at work and I must say it has been lovely. In the case of reading on my phone, I am happy my old eyes balk at it so that’s one thing I don’t need to worry about!

  6. I read in bed every night (30-45 minutes most days), but sometimes I go to bed extra early and read for 2 or more hours. I can’t seem to be able to devote such a long time during the day even on weekends, because I’m interrupted, not only by screens but by all the things to do. But I know I cannot commit to a screen-free day, that wouldn’t be realistic. I decided to monitor how much time I spend on social media apps every day; it’s interesting because I am nudged to not overindulge and scroll mindlessly.

    1. Oh Smithereens, you are right about all the things that interrupt our reading and pull our attention away! I read before bed every night too, usually about 45 minutes or so, it’s how I unwind. Maybe I need to start going to be earlier on weekends to read. I used to do that and it was truly heavenly.

  7. After closing my bookstore, I went for about five years with very little screen time. It helped me in every way. More time to think, to feel, to learn. And yes, more time to read and truly internalize what is written. I started this blog this year and created my first ever social media accounts to try to promote my writing. I regret this plan nearly every day because I don’t feel grounded any more. I am losing concentration — at a time of life when aging & various other stressors are already making that difficult. I already feel addicted to that next new headline or tweet. And this is a novel enough sensation for me that I’m aware of it. I know I am losing my mind. I hope to get a certain number of blog followers and then end this social media promotion phase. But what if I lose that resolve, what if I lose me before I get there? It’s terrifying.

    Also… you and I seem to be leading parallel lives. I am glad we’ve intersected. So there are good things in these screens.

    1. Oh no Elizabeth! You resisted for so long and now you have been sucked in. I hope you are able to end the social media promotion phase sooner rather than later. But I think as long as we spend time online we are in danger of losing our resolve. It is incredibly terrifying.

      I am glad we have intersected too! And that’s the extra hard part about screens, because they aren’t all bad. But it seems impossible to just have the good bits and block the rest out because the attention-grabbing stuff is always working to undermine us.

  8. From 2016 to 2020 I had a shorter attention span because I was always worried something had happened in the world and I needed to keep checking the news (why? wanting to know, I guess). Since the pandemic it’s better. I regularly ditch screens in the afternoon and for about an hour before I go to bed. I read a book this weekend that was so compelling I eventually learned not to pick it up if I wasn’t comfortably sitting down, because I’d emerge after some time had passed and think “why am I still leaned over this way?”

    1. Oh Jeanne, for sure 2016-2020 were hard years! I like that you ditch the screens in the afternoons. I cut myself off at 7 but I’m thinking once I get used to no screens on Fridays, I will start moving my weeknight cutoff time. Yay you were able to get lost in a book! So awesome!

  9. I can’t spend more than an hour reading a book. Actually, I seldom spend an hour reading a book. Usually I need a break by about 30 mins. and check my phone, or switch to Two Dots (I confess I’m hooked on that game on my phone). Another reading practice is, like the current read along of The Brothers Karamazov, I switch between reading the hard copy and listening to the audiobook. I find them complement each other, especially experientially.

    1. Arti, I totally get switching between listening and reading for Brothers K, especially if the audio narrator is a good one who can capture your attention and being the words to life. I really bothers me I have to take breaks while reading after only a short time. I remember when the Harry Potter books were published and I’d stay up into the wee hours of the night reading and finish those fat books by the time the weekend was over. I am pretty sure I can’t do that any longer 🙁

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