Let’s face it, millennials: most of us don’t read as often as we’d like to. If people talk to me about a book they’ve read recently and they have any complaints, they usually have to do with the book being too “wordy,” or “dragging on” unnecessarily. My complaints about books tend to fall into the same category. But lately, I’ve begun to suspect that this has nothing to do with the author’s writing style or the book itself; I think the internet has affected the way people think, as well as the way we interact with and experience our environment, and one of the side effects is that people are no longer able to read deeply.
We are now in the advent of the digital age, and one of the results of the rapid evolution of technology in the past few decades is that we now live in a world that has more information at its fingertips than ever before. However, it seems that as a result we have traded most of our capacity for deep, true knowledge in favor of knowledge that is spread wide and thin. We skim, but we don’t really read. There was once a time (or so I’ve been told) when people could actually sit down and read an entire book or scholarly journal in one sitting, deeply engrossed in the reading—getting “lost” in the words, as it were.
That sort of deliberate, uninterrupted focus is little more than a pipe dream to most people today. In the course of reading any sort of book – whether it be for school or for pleasure – I often find myself fidgeting, falling asleep, or checking Facebook and Twitter in the interim between finishing one chapter and starting a new one. People today are more ill-equipped than ever before to do things that require singular focus, such as deep reading. The internet has conditioned us to skim along the surface of the vast ocean of information that is available to us, rather than dive into its depths.
We can Google what we’re looking for, and even word-search within the pages that Google leads us to, exponentially hastening the process of research. Gone are the days when one had to sit down in a library and read an entire book or article to find relevant information to their research, or reach the end and discover – God forbid – that there wasn’t any relevant information in the first place. The idea of reading an entire book seems so quaint now in an age where we can do a Google Book Search. But what this has done to our brains, unfortunately, is left us crippled to do things that require truly deep focus, or that would foster the acquisition of deep knowledge.
We have – with the help of the internet – refined (if not mastered) the art of multitasking. And this certainly has its benefits; we have been able to increase the scope of our knowledge base by leaps and bounds. But the cost, of course, is that we are perpetually distracted when we attempt to focus on a single task. We have been conditioned to search for the bullet-points and bold text, the Wikipedia entries and the Spark Notes, and to have separate tabs on our browser dedicated to a multitude of web pages, rather than deeply focus on one page at a time. This is why we often miss the subtleties of a literary work that come by actually reading it and immersing ourselves in the text, missing the chance at acquiring some knowledge that is truly deep.
So, how do we “cast off the shackles” that the internet has placed on us, and learn to read again? Here are a few tips that I have found helpful:
- Unplug. Put away as many distractions as you’re willing to part with. Turn off the phone, the computer, the TV, don’t play music, and don’t even sit within view of a clock if you can help it. There’s definitely a time and a place for us to be plugged in to those things, and in this culture it’s all but inevitable. But if you want to read, you should be less willing to put up with those distractions.
- Watch your posture. This one may sound a bit funny, but when I first started “learning” to read again I found that sitting in a “prone” position (reclining, putting my feet up, wrapping myself in a blanket, etc.) made me want to take a nap more than read. I’m not saying you have to sit in a really uncomfortable chair in order to enjoy the benefits of deep reading, but don’t get too comfortable either.
- Make a list. Most people have one: that “list of books you wish you’d read.” The key is to start with books you want to read. If you don’t have a list like this, I highly recommend starting with Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The title is fairly self-explanatory, but it explores the ideas I’ve mentioned here in a more in-depth fashion.
- Keep looking forward. Reading is an exercise in delayed gratification, and this may be a foreign concept to most people from my generation and younger. Try to keep in mind that there are bigger benefits than just finishing a book (even though that’s significant in itself); it’s about growing your ability to focus on one thing at a time, which opens up the possibility to study things at a deeper level, which is a truly worthwhile goal.