Deep Reading

Jane Eyre BW

I know I’m not alone when I say that I’m a Reader. Yes, with a capital “R”. I learned to read in Kindergarten (from another five year old, no less) while everyone else was playing House and Doctor. This was back in the days when you just learned the alphabet and how to count to 100 at that age, and way before the Internet was anything but a twinkle in DARPA’s eye. Back then, webs were something spiders wove. I don’t remember not being able to read.

Books were my friends. Books were my favorite gifts for birthdays and Christmas. I had an above-grade reading level, not because I was any smarter than anyone else, but because I dug into my older brother’s books. Usually without permission. I rarely read just one book at a time, although sometimes I did get things a bit mixed up — I often had pictures of Laura Ingalls chasing aliens across the Fields of Pelennor running through my head — but it didn’t matter. I was living in other worlds and having fantastic adventures as well as having conversations with people who had long since left this plane of existence. I had the attention span of a gerbil most of the time, but I could focus on a book. My parents had a set of encyclopedias and a companion set of great literature (including the Bard’s great works, with production photos!!) that I loved to dive into, not just for school papers but to actually read. And I could sit there and read, in silence, for hours on end.

Several of those books are still tucked into my library, amongst all the other book-friends I’ve acquired since then, including all of my husband’s considerable collection. Anyone poking around my walls of paper could see that I’m a fan of science fiction, history, and Shakespeare, among other things.

Imagine my delight when the World Wide Web came online! I clearly remember a co-worker leaning into my office and beckoning to me, saying, “Hey, you gotta come and look at this! There’s this really neat thing called the World Wide Web!” And it was indeed wonderful. So much more to read! Like my parents’ encyclopedias, only more, more more! And later on, there were blogs and news 24/7 and Amazon (more books!! And ebooks!!) and FaceBook… and here’s a link to something more, and there’s a link to a definition for that word… hey that was pretty short, let’s go read something else…

The Web was entrancing, and for a while my paperbound friends waited patiently for me to pick them up again. I’m sure they were checking their watches and shuffling their feet as they waited, but books are patient. Imagine my horror, when I finally picked one of them up and gazed lovingly at the first page and discovered that…

I could no longer read.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course I could still read, in that I could still tell what words were on the page. I could still comprehend a sentence’s meaning. But I couldn’t sit still and silently read for more than a paragraph or two before my mind swerved into the turn lane. New books, old books, books I’d had for thirty years and read a hundred times, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t stay immersed. I no longer had the attention span of a gerbil. I had the attention span of a flea on that gerbil.

I was stunned. How in the world could I lose such a skill? Once a Reader, always a Reader, right? For a while I thought I was the only one, until I mentioned it to my husband. He said he was having trouble reading even long news articles, long being more than a couple of paragraphs.

For me, this was really frightening. I wasn’t glamorous, or graceful, or athletic, or charismatic. I am not mechanically inclined in the least. But, darn it, I could read.

Couldn’t I?

I was determined to get my Deep Reading skills back. And of course I did. Forcing myself to read a page at a time at first, then a chapter, until I was fully immersed and no longer noticing how many pages or chapters or minutes or hours had passed. But it did take time. I had to retrain myself.

For a long time I still could not figure out exactly what had happened. Then one day I found a clue! In The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr describes his similar experience:

I can feel it too. Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Of course this made my hair stand on end. This was exactly what had happened to me! I was both glad and terrified that I wasn’t alone. And I wasn’t alone in my guess about the reason: the ‘Net.

I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing…. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes…. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich and easily searched store of data are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. … The boons are real. But they come at a price. As McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

The author shared anecdotes of friends who had also noticed a change in their reading and thinking habits. Not all of them were bothered by it. Many of them felt that the benefits gained outweighed their loss. But I did, once I noticed it, mourn that loss. I felt like I had lost an important part of myself. Reading, truly Deep Reading, is more than just plucking a fact off a page and running with it. If you need to know the year King James I ascended the throne of England, fine; but what if you are curious about his reasoning for authorizing the King James Bible, you might need a little more information. And what if you happen to grab the wrong fact because you didn’t pay attention to the context in which it was presented? What if the author was being sarcastic, or attempting to tell the reader what not to do?

Debate and nuance require space and pages of text, not tweets. Tweets are great, don’t get me wrong, but they are more like shouting at a crowd as you drive by with your car window rolled down than a debate or a conversation. Social media can be a great supplement to conversation, but it shouldn’t replace it. I’m afraid that nowadays Big Social Media has kicked the Art of Conversation out of its nest and out into the street… and kicked Deep Reading out along with it.

But I digress. Allow me to step down from the soapbox and return to the coffee table.

How in the world could my reading skills change? Once I have learned how to read, shouldn’t I be able to read anything I want, no matter how long it is? Can’t my brain handle everything, all the time, no matter the size or speed? Apparently not. Apparently the brain adapts itself to the way the owner feeds it. How? The short answer, according to Carr, is plasticity. We’re not as set in our ways as we think we are (even old farts like me):

The adult brain, it turns out, is not just plastic but, as James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, puts it, “very plastic.” … The plasticity diminishes as we get older — brains do get stuck in their ways — but it never goes away. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created. “The brain,” observes Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

Our brains can adapt to new situations. That’s great! This helps us overcome all kinds of injuries and changes to our environment. But there are some cons to it as well, when it adapts beyond our control. In Carr’s view, his brain had adapted to the way he was using it: constantly reading in short, rapid-fire bursts. I think this is what happened to me. I began reading in little sips, all the time, and my brain said, “Okie dokie, this is the way things are now, let’s rewire to make this new way of reading work better.” The scary thing about that is that it did the work without me asking it to; it was automatic. But on the plus side, one can take control of that process. Once I was conscious of the change, I was (with time and patience) able to get my old reading habits back.

I say all that to say this: if you pick up a book for the first time in a while and find that you have the attention span of a goldfish, don’t panic. It happens. You can get your Deep Reading skills back. They’re not gone forever. And you’re not an outlier; our brains are designed to adapt this way. The real trick is, watch your Reading Hygiene. Mix and match what you read. There’s nothing wrong with surfing the web (does anyone still use that term besides me?). Just make sure that isn’t the only reading that you do. Leave some room for your favorite author, too. Find some time for Dickens or Tolstoy or Stephen King (The Stand was great retraining material, as well as Four Past Midnight) or your daily Bible devotional or Anne McCaffrey or whatever gets your reading juices flowing.

Feed your brain on short sips and long draughts.

That is one thing I seek as an author and as a member of Twin Cedars, to provide yet more Deep Reading for those hungry for new worlds and new characters. My husband, fellow author T. D. Raufson, has that same goal: to encourage Deep Reading and the Thinking that it fertilizes. We hope to connect readers with authors no matter where they are or what genre they prefer. Find something that feeds your brain and frees your soul.

Read a book.

Even if it ain’t mine.

P. S. I highly recommend The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. It was published in 2010. Eight years is a long time on the Internet, but I think his theory is more relevant now than ever.