Ah, Rain, how I wish I could send you to California where you are so greatly desired. Whereas here, it is like the waters are rising up to my neck. Wouldn’t it be nice if God would, just once in a while, arrange the weather according to our needs and holiday plans? Perhaps it would be better not to answer that question.
Instead, today, having dutifully trolled the internet and come up with nothing sensational enough to tempt me, I want to draw your attention to this interview with Karen Swallow Prior about her forthcoming book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. I happened, through the low tactic of begging, to already have a copy and I am enjoying it very much. In the introduction she makes this tragical observation,
If, like me, you have lived long enough to have experienced life—and reading—before the internet, perhaps you have now found your attention span shortened and your ability to sit and read for an hour (or more) nil. The effects on our minds of the disjointed, fragmentary, and addictive nature of the digitized world—and the demands of its dinging, beeping, and flashing devices—are well documented. Nicholas Carr explains in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains that “the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better.”
Funnily enough, I first read portions of this observation online, on twitter, on my phone. Boy isn’t that true, I said to myself, scrolling dejectedly on.
Though not with the same level of despair as I would have had if I’d read it a year ago, or even two. I actually, through a combination of desperation and hard work, have recovered my capacity to read, and I want to tell you how, so that you can do it too. Although, you probably already are reading again, or for the first time, and so will want to put your screen away, and read a book, but indulge me anyway. Read something real after you’ve read this.
First I should say how it was that I lost my reading muscle. It wasn’t nefarious, not really. It was just circumstances and life. I had six babies, one right after the other, and I stopped sleeping at night. And so, for upwards of ten years, the very act of picking up a book launched me into deep slumber, broken only by the crying of every child. I didn’t read the Bible, or novels, or history books, or anything more intellectually taxing than blog articles, which were just long enough, usually, to imbibe before nodding off. Also, the bright shiny screen of my computer kept me awake.
Can you believe it? I only got my first smart phone when the last baby was a baby. So the addiction to a screen followed seamlessly and senselessly upon my infant addiction. I wasn’t reading anyway, and so when facebook rose up and took over the world, I was as putty in its technological, data-harvesting vice grip.But along the way I began to be really unhappy about it. I couldn’t settle my mind and discovered a longing sense that some other life I had once lived was crying out to me, like Mole suddenly smelling his own dark long forgotten home, and being quite frantic to find it again. About this time I got Audible.
The chief pleasure of Audible, that first year, was that I only had one credit a month, and so I had to think very hard about what I was going to pick, and then relish and dole the book out over an impossibly long 30 days. I began to be obsessed not only with the books themselves, but with the sacred rites of choosing, the liturgical solemnity of sipping rather than gobbling.
It was Audible, and taking seriously the advice in Deep Work, that helped me climb back into the world of being able to look at a page, not a screen, without falling asleep. The longer I had my account, the more I accumulated books, so that I no longer had to listen so little and so slowly. Also, I was given a gorgeously huge present of a year’s worth of credits, which has done much for moving me out of my anxious fear of imminent literary famine, though not entirely. Try asking, if you’re a child around here, if you can have one of my credits, and I will literally and metaphorically blast you with the raging heat of a thousand angry suns…where was I?
Oh yes, Audible—that miracle of books coming right through the wire and into my ear, that modern delight of being read to without having to still be a child, that wondrous joy of mounting up book upon book, word upon word, delight upon delight—slowly stretched my thinking capacity and helped me regain thoughts and ideas lasting longer than thirty seconds. I could listen to a whole book in a matter of hours, following plot lines, or intellectual arguments, all the way from beginning to end. It was like magic, and like coming home.
And it translated me back onto the physical page. In a very short time I was restored to the rate of reading that I’d had before—I was able to read both fast, as occasion demanded, or slow, for my own pleasure. I was able to read a whole paragraph without looking at my phone, and then another one, and then another one. Gradually I stopped reading the internet at night and began to read books I’d remembered I’d loved, and then even one or two new ones. I was able to sit down in a chair and deliberately drown out the interruptions of children and technology and read from one idea to the next.
Now I have a new irritation. I have too many other things to do, and not enough time to rush headlong through the next life altering tome. There are whole hours where I can’t reasonably listen to whatever I’ve got going on Audible, nor sit and read one from the huge stack next to my bed that is threatening to fall on me and injure me in the night.
But all misery aside, no matter what, when the clock strikes eight, which is bedtime for me, I abandon the house, the children, all worries and cares, and relish whole hours of actual reading of actual physical books before sleep overtakes me.
Take that Marc Zuckerberg, and the Google person, and whoever invented Twitter. You may be tracking my every move, but you don’t own my soul, yet. I have the ability to stop scrolling, and that is worth all the gold in the world.