We live in an age of anxious readers—readers who are not only worried that they’re not reading enough, but also worried that they’re reading the wrong way. Katy Waldman explains:
Reading insecurity. It is the subjective experience of thinking that you’re not getting as much from reading as you used to. … It is deploring your attention span and missing the flow, the trance, of entering a narrative world without bringing the real one along. It is realizing that if Virginia Woolf was correct to call heaven “one continuous unexhausted reading,” then goodbye, you have been kicked out of paradise.
And reading insecurity is everywhere, from the many colleagues who told me they have the condition … to the desperate call-to-arms among twentysomething friends that rarely leads anywhere: “Let’s form a book club!” (Yeah, right.) An assortment of new reading apps advance the idea that we must reimagine reading if we’re going to salvage it … Books and articles probe the Way We Read Now: Teachers deplore it, kids seem unfazed by it, and millennials/late Gen Y-ers wonder whether to embrace or resist it.
People have had problems with reading and focus before. It’s not unique to our generation. One of the most common difficulties has always been the pull of other tasks: how can you sit down and read a book when there are so many other things to be done? But today, our difficulties also stem significantly from the way in which we read, and from the multitude of reading choices at our disposal.
Perhaps a useful comparison to use here would be Netflix. As Honest Slogans so adroitly put it, when you log onto Netflix, you “spend more time searching than actually watching.” And the same is largely true of reading in the digital age: it’s the sheer amount to be read that hampers our ability to concentrate. Should I read about Syria on The Atlantic or the New York Times? How about both? And perhaps then I should visit Fox News, just for a varying opinion? We read 1/4 to 1/3 of the articles, getting the “gist” of them, then move on to another topic, and repeat the exercise.
Websites’ layouts also create a compendium of distractions: when reading news online, you can’t just focus on the article at hand (unless, perhaps, you’re reading on a site like The New Yorker, that minimizes distractions as you scroll). There are thousands of icons and links, “Most Popular” and “More by this author” tabs, advertisements and pictures beckoning for your attention. And even when the distractions aren’t seeable, when we’re reading a book on our iPad or Kindle, perhaps, that tantalizing awareness of the Internet’s presence, its looming compendium, haunts our thoughts, and distracts us from the reading at hand.
These difficulties aren’t quite as relevant, though, when we read “for pleasure”—because when we read a book for pleasure, we approach it with a different attitude. We may still harbor some anxiety about the news or other books we’re “missing,” but at the end of the day, we’re reading this book “for fun.” So we can dispel other thoughts from our mind, and pour greater focus into the text.
Yet even here, we often get sidetracked. And I think the greatest distraction here is what it’s always been: people find difficulty setting aside time for “pleasure reading.” It feels like wasted time, time better spent reading the news, cleaning the kitchen, changing the oil in our car. When we consciously sit down to do something for fun, something that forces us to turn everything else off and set other cares aside, we get anxious. Television and the Internet don’t effect us in the same way, it seems—probably in part because we can “multi-task” while we do those things. We can make dinner while listening to the news, fold laundry while watching “House of Cards,” and browse work email while updating our Twitter feed. They are “guilty pleasures” still—but not to the extent that pleasure reading is.
Thus, in order to really read, for the sheer enjoyment of it, I think we have to step not just away from the Internet—for that isn’t really our biggest problem. We also have to step away from the to-do list, the laundry, the kitchen sink, the work email. We have to say, “This time is for reading, and I won’t let guilt or anxiety or work get in the way of savoring this time.” That seems to be the hardest thing to do—harder even than turning off one’s iPhone. But it’s worth it, in the long run.