We live in the Age of Distraction. Information is everywhere.
It is easy to become so mesmerized by current events that appear to be happening right under our noses. We feel we must have blow-by-blow updates: from our Twitter feeds or by surfing TV news channels, even as these events are still unfolding.
In between our endeavors to experience the most thunderous, most in-your-face aspects of reality secondhand, we deal with jobs, families, chores, and exercise regimes that guarantee to keep us on the planet longer. When we need to take a break, we turn to video games, Youtube, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat….
Never has mankind been so busy. And it’s all good; or at least it’s all exciting; or at the very least, it’s all very interesting (as in, we live in interesting times).
But what about reading? How have our reading habits changed now that technology is all pervasive? What about our reading skills? Are they going down the drain along with letter writing and afternoon naps?
Most people I know love to read, and they would all agree that keeping our reading skills sharp is really important. The problem is that they just don’t get around reading more as much as they used to. I include myself in this category.
I used to think of myself as a constant reader, and I still am in the sense that there is never a time that I’m not reading at least one book. But I’m taking longer to finish what I start. I admit that the page length of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest still intimidates me, even though I really love his writing.
Below are five excuses I’ve heard come out of either my own mouth, or the mouths of other once great readers. Of course, there are solutions to counter each. Hopefully the solutions will inspire all of us to read more – and improve reading skills.
5 Excuses To Counteract If You Want To Improve Reading Skills
1) Not enough time.
Who wouldn’t read more if only the day could be made to last a few extra hours? But as that can’t be done, the solution is to set aside time from within already existing diurnal parameters, to “make” time, as they say. This might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s the bedrock to improve reading skills.
If you can’t make time to read, there’s no point in even bothering to read on. Commit to watch less TV or spend less time on the Internet, or stay up a little longer. Somehow, if you want to improve reading skills, you have to put in the time.
2) I read stories from Facebook/Twitter links online all the time. What’s wrong with that?
If your social media sites are anything like mine, they offer up a combination of platitudes, cool animal and baby videos, and links to articles on politics, culture, and world events.
Obviously it is the latter—the links to relevant articles—that you want to shoot for if you are serious about improving reading skills. But how much of each article will you be willing to read when texts are being offered to you in a format that is teaming with competition and distractions?
If you spend as much time surfing through fun videos and updates from your “friends” as you do selecting articles to read, can you really count that as reading time?
There is another problem too, with reading online. Surely you have had the experience of clicking on an enticing story link, only to find it doesn’t take you directly to the story at all. You may have to scroll through pop-up videos, pop-up subscription links, and a jungle of ads to find what you were looking for.
A week ago, I considered replacing the futon in the guest room with a more comfortable daybed. I went online and checked out the daybed market. A day later I let it go: the old futon will do just fine; no reason to give it another thought. Yet here it is a week later and every time I open a link to a story about, say, evidence that parallel universes probably do exist, what do I see but an assortment of pretty daybeds!
And then there are the ads that are not particular to you at all, the ones that everyone must contend with, many of them disguised as “editorials.” And in addition to the editorials, which are determined to remind you that, no matter how much you may adore, say, quantum physics, you are at heart a lowly consumer. There are other “paid for” links that strive blatantly to engage your darker self.
You know what I mean. These are links with headlines like, “The real reason we don’t hear about Paris Hilton anymore,” or “the real reason Angelina and Brad split” (mind you, I don’t click on such links myself, but who can help but be distracted by headlines and accompanying thumbnail photos?).
If that’s not enough, when you do finally find the article you wanted to read, you may be further distracted—assuming you make it to the end of said article—by the long list of conflicting “comments” put forth by other readers, who made it to the end (and probably a few who didn’t but like to hear themselves talk!).
And there goes any time you might have spent reading a second article, out the window.
3) Reading inferior stuff is still reading, isn’t it?
For the reasons mentioned above, if the only thing you read is online stories, you have some work to do if you’re serious about improving reading skills. Most (but certainly not all) online articles fall under the heading of political or cultural “breaking news”. And every site you visit will carry a more or less similar version of the same stories.
Generally, these stories will be short and to the point. So yes, you can keep up with the times by reading what’s available online, but if you really want to learn about the nuances of events—say, for instance, you’ve read about a recent solar storm and now you want to find out if it’s true that solar storms are weakening Earth’s magnetic field, and if so, what the ramifications are—you will have to look for a book, or at least a magazine such as Science.
That’s what good reading does. It inspires you to step into the dark cave of ignorance, to feel your way forward, to learn more, to become stimulated, to go to bed thinking ‘What are the implications of the fact that agricultural practices in some stone age archaeological sites are exposing sulfurous sediment to oxygen, which is turning once well preserved bones and tools to jelly’?
Challenge yourself. Read longer detailed articles about really interesting subjects, subjects that go beyond the news, without the distractions associated with online reading. Read articles that appear in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, and see if you don’t get pulled in.
4) Fiction isn’t even real, right?
Many lovers of nonfiction complain that reading fiction is a waste of time because it isn’t real. Reading poorly written, poorly thought-out fiction probably is a waste of time. But reading great fiction can absolutely blow your mind!
Good historical fiction, for instance, brings to life events that may have taken up no more than a page or two when you read about them in your high school history book. Good writers offer fresh perspectives from which to view such events. They offer opportunities for you to discover the motivations of the players; perhaps to stumble upon truths you realized existed but never felt the authenticity of before.
In All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, we are introduced to a Hitler’s Youth member assigned to seek out Resistance activity. Another WWII story? Hardly. This book is a place to live for as long as you are reading it.
The beauty of the writing and the magic in the plot are in themselves transcendent. But beyond that is an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the ways in which evil can sometimes be unplanned and unintended.
Great fiction doesn’t have to hit hard on historical events at all. In House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, the desires of a trash collector who was once an Iranian colonel are pitted against those of a young woman trying to rise above her sordid past and save her family home from unfair tax claims. Their clash of impulses is deeply representative of pulse that drives human experience.
You get the picture; there are lots of things to learn from great novels. Not only will you improve reading skills, but you’ll enjoy yourself as well.
5) What about speed reading?
If you’re speed reading, you’re probably not looking up words you don’t know. If you want to improve reading skills, it follows that you have to develop your vocabulary, too. For those who don’t read on Kindle or other electronic devices, this means keeping a dictionary on hand.
I’ve never tried to speed read myself, but I’m guessing as a technique it doesn’t lend itself to going back and re-reading a paragraph just because your mind wandered (let alone a sentence just because it was gorgeously constructed!). Minds wander for all kinds of reasons, and that can be a good thing.
Say you’re reading Dave Eggers’ newest novel Heroes of the Frontier, and it occurs to you that the protagonist, Josie, is the perfect example of a good person who continuously makes poor decisions. And maybe that gets you thinking about someone in your own life, who continuously makes poor decisions. You find yourself thinking you should really look for books or articles on the decision-making process and see if you can help your loved one.
Great idea, but here you’ve read through an entire paragraph in your novel without taking in one single word. Should you speed read going forward? Of course not. Stop, take a breath. Make a note to remind yourself that you want to research decision-making. Then go back and reread the paragraph you missed out on.
Be a white knight. Be an adventurer. Fall in love with reading and you may fall in love with your own lovely mind. Improve reading skills and see where it takes you today.