I can’t read anymore. My eyes are fine, I can see and understand words. I don’t mean I am physically unable to read text. Perhaps if you count everything, including tweets, Reddit comments, hacker news discussion, YouTube comments and closed captions, product reviews on Amazon, nutrition labels on food packaging and so on, in a day I now read more than ever. What I can’t seem to be able to read is books. Or anything longer than a couple of paragraphs.
Yes, the title is somewhat of a clickbait. Even when only talking about books, a more accurate title would have been “It is very hard for me nowadays to sustain my attention on the book I’m reading for a reasonable and previously normal amount of time”. But this title got your attention, and if you have a normal attention span (unlike me) please forgive me and bear my writing for a few more minutes.
Let me give a little more detailed view of situation. As I’ve already said, a woefully short attention span is one of factors in play here. But it’s more complicated than that. On most days I don’t even pick up a book. By now you must be thinking, “So you don’t even pick up a book and declare that you can’t read? What a liar!”. And I’d be inclined to agree with you. But when you think about it, “can’t” can mean many things. It’s apparently a spectrum, encompassing a whole smorgasbord of possibilities. And in this case “I can’t” means “I don’t end up doing it as much as I would like to”.
I fondly remember times in the past when I would spend whole days reading. Barely taking a break if I was reading a thrilling page turner, or else leisurely going from sentence to sentence, enjoying every word. Lying on a bed or on a sofa, tossing and turning, trying to find the most comfortable eye-book-hand-body configuration. And yet “leisurely reading a book” feels like a foreign concept now. To put things into perspective, it has been two whole months and eleven days since I started reading my “currently reading” book. In this time, I haven’t even finished a fifth of it. I made virtually zero progress in the past one and a half months. And on average, the number of books I read per year has steadily decreased for the past eight or ten years.
The simplest explanation for this is screens. More precisely, it is the Internet instead of just screens. It is the Internet that gives screens their attention-sucking power. Of course, the Internet as a technology, in itself, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s this endless variety of information available on the Internet as an immediate consequence of its design, but that’s nothing compared to how modern internet companies design addictive systems that keep us hooked, keep us coming for more and more. I’ve already talked a lot about this topic, and by now I must have started to sound like a broken record, so I’ll not go further. Here are two great videos by CGP Grey and exurb1a on the topic if you don’t know what I’m talking about. While we’re talking about books, also watch this BEAUTIFUL video on about the same topic as this post.
The point is, I’m an internet addict. (Come to think of it, that would have been the proper title for this.) My free time is spent looking at screens. If I try to stop wasting time on something and curtail its use, I end up spending my time looking at something else instead. Not just my free time, I often end up spending time I don’t have. And then it’s hello missed deadlines and hello self-loathing. Internet addiction is a difficult thing to manage because unlike substance addictions, you can’t cold-turkey quit the Internet. Unless you’re a hermit, you need it for day-to-day life.
I don’t know what this means for the future, mine and everyone’s. Perhaps it isn’t worth worrying about a lot. I haven’t heard anyone I know IRL saying that the Internet has made it harder for them to read books. I’ve only found people saying this on, ironically, the Internet. So maybe this affects only a small fraction of people. Whatever the case, I’m trying to find ways to recover from this condition and become a reader again. I’ve missed the joy of reading, and there’s a towering stack of books I’ve procrastinated too long on. If I learn something from my efforts to repair my brain, I’ll share it in a future post. “One weird trick to make you read THICK books again!!!”