Reading Isn’t What It Used to Be — It’s Harder

book with coffee

Isn’t it lovely to imagine curling up with a book? And isn’t it difficult to actually do it? As a book person (book reviewer, former bookstore owner, etc.), I’m probably not supposed to admit that actually reading a book is anything less than a perfect experience of being magically transported into another realm. Sometimes, it feels exactly like that — but getting there isn’t always so easy.

When I was a kid, slipping into that realm was simple. But as any decent fantasy book will teach you, it’s a lot more difficult for adults to pull back the veil and step into a world of imagination than it is for children. To balance this out, we adults can transport ourselves in non-magical ways like driving cars, walking to coffee shops and just generally being able to leave the house whenever we please, so let’s not feel too sorry for ourselves. But our lack of access to imagination and focus makes it more difficult to really enjoy books.

It’s not just because we’re grownups, though — it’s also because reading a book is exactly the opposite of what we’re conditioning ourselves to do in a culture that exists in large part (maybe primarily) online. Our focus ping pongs between screens, between apps on those screens, and between posts in the apps. We’re constantly getting push alerts for things that are happening elsewhere, and we’re trained to think that we must react immediately. Our focus is always, always shifting.

When we read books, we’re asked to stay with one concept or one story for an extended period of time. This is really difficult, even for me, and I’m sometimes literally earning money by reading. I rarely even watch a 30-minute episode on Netflix anymore without scrolling through Instagram, and when you’re reading, that kind of fractured attention just doesn’t work.

But the same things that make reading difficult also make it a valuable skill; because reading requires focus, books help us exercise the skill of focusing — of thinking deeply about ideas and concepts. And because there are things in life that require more than 15 seconds of focus at a time, re-developing an actual attention span can be a really valuable thing. Re-learning to read can be an antidote to living in a world of continual distraction.

With all this in mind, I thought I’d try writing a post or two on “How to Read;” here’s a link to the first post, about how to start a weekend reading practice. On the surface, this seems like a ridiculous topic — anyone reading who’s visiting my blog is, technically, literate. But finishing a book requires a different level of focus than finishing a blog — or an Instagram caption. They can all have value, but books make our perspective deep and wide in a way short-form content just can’t. There’s something that’s difficult about that — but there’s something magical, too.

Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist, a book about buying from locally owned stores. She’s Communications Director at Infomedia, a web development company in Birmingham, Alabama. Find her as @crollwagen on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and most other social media platforms.

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