Struggling to read
Struggling to be
When I was a teen, I remember telling my mother that I was lucky because no matter what happened to me in life, I’d always be happy as long as I had a book.
I loved movies as well, so it’s interesting I said books, not movies. Perhaps it was because movies could only be watched in a theater or on a TV then. Movies weren’t portable, as they are now, whereas a book could go anywhere, a deserted island or a prison.
But I think it was something else. I think I said books because I got a deeper satisfaction of the soul from reading.
I’ve been missing that deeper satisfaction. Somehow, without my knowing it, it withered away, like a neglected house plant.
I read less this year than any year in my adult life. That’s because I’m busy with several projects, including writing books, but it’s also because of something that I’ll call Internet head. iPhone head. Device head. My attention span is so fractured that I have a hard time literally sitting down with a good book and luxuriating in it like I used to.
When I’ve told this to others, I’ve found that almost everyone I know is going through the same thing. Many people have given up reading altogether—people who had always been readers, people who like hanging out in bookstores. Which makes me worried about the state of reading today.
Book sales have been strong these past few years, but I wonder if the books purchased have been read. If people like me aren’t reading—people who have literally formed their beings around books—then what chance does reading have? Perhaps the era of human reading—which began on a widespread level in just the last century—is reaching an end.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,” said Ray Bradbury. “Just get people to stop reading them.”
I’m ringing the alarm bell: I think we’re destroying our culture because we’re destroying our ability for deep reflection.
We are not only what we read. We are how we read.
I recently had a realization, though, that counters that ominous prediction. I was in Mexico for a writing conference, and I had a day free, so I did what I liked to do best when I traveled when I was younger: sit in a cafe and read. I sat on the Zocalo in Oaxaca, which is a reading and writing dream for me because it’s teeming with people and festive cafes. When I started reading, though, my brain resisted it. The Internet, my phone, was like a powerful magnet. I not only had a hard time paying attention to the words on the page, I had a hard time enjoying them.
I didn’t want to yield to the distracting forces tugging at me, so I forced myself to keep reading, and the more I read and wrote, the more my brain started to follow a different rhythm. After a couple of hours, I felt the glimmerings of deep reading returning. I was traveling elsewhere—not only into the land of a book, but into myself.
I realized that our brains have plasticity. They can be trained. When I was younger, I unconsciously trained my brain to read. Now, I’ve unconsciously trained it for screens and devices. So I realized that I need to re-train it for reading, and to do so deliberately.
The word “rhythm” is important here because to read, my brain needs to move at a different pace than it does online. I need to find a way to transition to reading after a hard day’s work (or after a hard day of being attacked by screens, rather). Maybe I should listen to music. Maybe I should meditate. Maybe I should go on a walk. Maybe I should do all of the above. My online life is so intrusive that I need to consciously construct my environment to support reading in a way I never have.
Coincidentally, I also recently listened to Maryanne Wolf, a researcher at UCLA who wrote a book called, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, on Ezra Klein’s podcast. She had some enlightening and disturbing things to say about our contemporary reading trends and habits.
It turns out we are not only what we read. We are how we read.
That’s because typically when you read, you have more time to think—you pause to comprehend and reflect—whereas reading on screens trains us to skim, exacerbating whatever attention span challenges we already have.
One of her most interesting findings: There are no genes or areas in the brain devoted uniquely to reading. We create a “reading brain” by creating new circuits that connect existing circuits in a different way. Reading creates new ways of thinking every time we do it, in other words, because it connects disparate parts of our brains
There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. The good part of that rule is that we have a choice. The bad part is that most of us aren’t exercising that choice.
If you care about such things as your critical thinking, analogical reasoning, making inferences from text, and imagining another's perspective … then there’s a fork in the reading road, and you’ll have to choose which way to go.
“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library,” said Jorge Luis Borges.
To think that we might be turning away from a paradise that’s literally right at our fingertips.
Because a quote
“The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn’t know how to read.”
Because I started a new book
Annie Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature. I read a profile of her in The New Yorker in which she said she wants to reveal the darkest parts of herself with such pitiless accuracy that she will be forced to fall silent once and for all. That urge toward the turth, no matter how damning it might be, is what forms the best writing.
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
I write this newsletter for many reasons, but mainly just for the joy of being read and having conversations with readers. This newsletter is free, and I want it to always be free, so the best way to support my work is to buy my books or hire me to speak.
Because more about me
I am the executive director of National Novel Writing Month, the co-founder of 100 Word Story, and an Executive Producer of the upcoming TV show America’s Next Great Author. I am the author of a bunch of books and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded.
My essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Lit Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.
Image credit: Creator: LA Johnson / Credit: NPR
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