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I have forgotten how to read

2 March 2018

From The Globe and Mail:

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.

Paragraphs swirled; sentences snapped like twigs; and sentiments bled out. The usual, these days. I drag my vision across the page and process little. Half an hour later, I throw down the book and watch some Netflix.

Out for dinner with another writer, I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”

“Yes!” he replied, pointing his knife. “Everybody has.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”

He nodded: “Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

For good reason. It’s embarrassing. Especially for someone like me. I’m supposed to be an author – words are kind of my job. Without reading, I’m not sure who I am. So, it’s been unnerving to realize: I have forgotten how to read – really read – and I’ve been refusing to talk about it out of pride.

Books were once my refuge. To be in bed with a Highsmith novel was a salve. To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.

In a very real way, to lose old styles of reading is to lose a part of ourselves.

 For most of modern life, printed matter was, as the media critic Neil Postman put it, “the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse.” The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

Author Nicholas Carr ( The Shallows) writes that, “digital technologies are training us to be more conscious of and more antagonistic toward delays of all sorts.” We become, “more intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli.” So, I throw down the old book, craving mental Tabasco sauce. And yet not every emotion can be reduced to an emoji, and not every thought can be conveyed via tweet.

. . . .

For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was.

. . . .

The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn’t surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. 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.)

. . . .

Literacy has only been common (outside the elite) since the 19th century. And it’s hardly been crystallized since then. Our habits of reading could easily become antiquated.

Link to the rest at The Globe and Mail

Books in General

15 Comments to “I have forgotten how to read”

  1. I read a couple of books a week. I’m a writer because I love to read. I think this OP might need to see a shrink.

    • Na, their mind has already shrunk and they think if they have mental issues then everyone else must have them too … 😉

      (Or maybe they just keep picking books without plots – you know – those ‘literary’ ones …)

  2. This is horrifying.

  3. See a shrink or switch to ebook….;-)

  4. tl;dr

  5. What a load of over-ripe manure.

    I’m willing to bet I’ve logged more screen time in the past forty or fifty years I’ve spent in front of a computer display than any of the wonks in the OP. I have noticed arthritis that sometimes makes holding a book difficult; the need for three different pairs of glasses to get things comfortably in focus for reading, writing, and walking my dog; a distinct diminution of my capacity and taste for alcohol; and the inability to sleep for more five consecutive hours.

    But I can still lose myself in a novel by Joseph Conrad or Anthony Trollope to the point that I worry that it interferes with keeping up with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and email.

    All this long-form reading is getting to be a problem. Sheeeesh.

    • Yes! I prefer Kindle to print book because of my eyes, but I read more now than ever. Forgotten how to read? Humbug and hogwash. 🙂

  6. The problem here is that everyone who says “I’ve forgotten how to read” or “I read lots” is strictly anecdotal, and their own experiences of necessity can only possibly relate to one person: themselves.

    I’m sure lots of people have lots of things they used to love to do but can’t anymore. Reading will be one of those. So will playing chess, bowling, binge-watching TV series, doing crossword puzzles, or any other pursuit you care to mention. There’s nothing somehow magical about no longer being able to read, nor will the Internet always be to blame. People’s tastes change as their lives go on.

    • I agree. I used to read a lot, but I don’t read nearly as much now. And basically, I’m talking about reading for pleasure.

      I still read blogs, non-fiction books on various topics, news articles, forum posts, and other types of materials.

      But reading for pleasure has diminished. I think there are quite a few reasons why: too judgmental, too busy, not enough time, lack of interest, too much other stuff to do, and not much seems to hold my attention or capture my heart.

      That’s just the way it is.

    • “I’m sure lots of people have lots of things they used to love to do but can’t anymore.”

      I agree.

      I’ll add that my math skills have declined greatly since college. My Mom grew up fluent in Italian, but her skills withered from disuse to the point where she could only understand it… not speak it.

  7. Absolutely ridiculous. If this person no longer has the attention span to read, then I feel sorry for him. I hope as old age approaches that my faculties never degenerate to this point. Blame it on getting old perhaps. But not on the internet. People are no different. I know children who have grown up with their devices and the net and spend hours on them who still spend hours reading. Both paper books and ebooks. To this person I say stop whinging and start doing something to rebuild your attention span. Of if it is due to illness, seek treatment.

    • Felix J. Torres

      It’s not old age.
      If anything, reading for pleasure is more common among older demographics. Especially ebook reading.
      And it’s not anecdotal; it is regularly documented in a variety of polls.

      Attention span is a matter of focus and interest.

      Unless the OP suffers from ADHD…
      (Which Aderall can help with. 😉 )

      …they just need to find more accessible and engaging books to read. I would recommend Romance or tough guy thrillers. (He doesn’t sound like SF&F would suit him.) 😀

  8. This is so strange to mistake ebooks for non books. I read exclusively ebooks because i live abroad in a town that has no english language books. I read constantly, several books a week. I feel NO DIFFERENCE between reading an ebook and a paperback and do not feel my reading ability has diminished, not in any way. if anything, I read more because i have access to more books. What’s WRONG with people??

  9. “I said, “I think I’ve forgotten how to read.”
    “Yes!” he replied. “Everybody has.”
    “I mean I actually can’t do it any more.”
    “Nobody can read like they [I] used to. But nobody wants to talk about it.”

    For “everybody has”, read “I have.”
    For “nobody can”, read “I can’t”

    Nobody wants to talk about it because one anecdote from one self-absorbed twit with the attention span of a teething infant is of no interest to anyone else.

    Do I waste time chasing shiny objects on the internet? Sure. I also love picking up a favorite old (or new) print book or my lightweight, comfortable e-reader with its many, many books and hours of enjoyable reading to look forward to.

    “Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements… were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never “natural.” Literacy has only been common (outside the elite) since the 19th century.

    Yes, that must be why no ancient culture (except many of them) made any effort to develop reading systems. Rosetta stone?

    What a great heaping pile of whiny ignorance.

  10. Ashe Elton Parker

    Title should read, “I want to throw a pity party instead of seeking constructive solutions to my issue.”

    Really, if this OP doesn’t want to read, he should just admit it and go on to whatever else he really wants to do instead of making up excuses about his inability and blaming scapegoats for his lack of interest in books. There’s no shame in not reading any more, not when there’s so much else in the world to give one’s attention to. Or, since he’s certainly got such a good imagination, maybe he should try his hand at fiction.

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