Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How Shorter Attention Spans for Reading
Even Affect Those Who Are Paid To Do It

'When I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, my grandmother used to get mad at me for attending family functions with a book. Back then, if I'd had the language for it, I might have argued that the world within the pages was more compelling than the world without; I was reading both to escape and to be engaged. All these years later, I find myself in a not-dissimilar position, in which reading has become an act of meditation, with all of meditation's attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It's harder than it used to be, but still, I read.'
--from The Lost Art of Reading, an eye-opening piece by L.A. Times book editor David Ulin, who admits that even he has trouble focusing long enough to read books anymore. We recently had a small conversation here about Twitter, attention spans and A.D.D., but this extraordinarily honest piece should grab the attention of all serious readers. Do you think it's more a sign of advancing age on his part (we don't know his age, but we'll try to find out; one would assume he's not young) or part of a larger rewiring of our brains by a faster, image-addicted culture? We'd love to hear your thoughts. And please note the LAT's new website design, just launched in the last 24 hours. We're saddened that the trend toward plainer, (what we consider) uglier web designs with less color continue to make their inroads all over the web. For me, it makes for a slightly less interesting experience. Finally, you can review earlier entries about the joys of reading here, here, here, here, here and here.


At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Donna said...


As you well know, this is a subject very near and dear to my heart.

As a kid, I used to bring my books to the dinner table and read from my lap while I was eating (prompting one of my neighbors who saw this to tell my mom I had horrible table manners). Hey, eating dinner wasn't MY idea.

I also used to read by a 20-watt nightlight that we used to leave burning at the top of our landing. My mom would catch me at it and yell up the steps and tell me to go to sleep. And when all else failed, I used the toilet tank as a sort of lap desk. So tell me about it. I was addicted and still am to a point. I'm like a sponge for knowledge.

But my sponge is like the one you used to scour your kitchen sink 5 million times. It is falling apart.

There is just not enough non-fatigued time to read. I look forward to retirement for this very pleasure. However, my dad is 76 years old now and he has to stand up if he wants to read the newspaper or he falls asleep. It's apparently some aging thing.

I think I got part of my sponginess from him. I hope I don't have the same reading difficulty he has when I'm that age. I will feel gypped.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

How appropriate that you're the first to sound off on this issue, since you're one of the few people I know who are as dedicated to reading as I am. Your childhood sounds pretty similar to mine, and to all hungry minded folks. Our tribe tends to find each other. I'm glad you mention fatigue, because for many people that probably plays just as big a role in reading less than they otherwise would as does lack of attention span. Life is just more hectic than it used to be, which accounts for having less time for reading and everything else.

Let me throw out one other related issue that I've occasionally noted in one way or another: the idea that you can still be a well-read and well-informed person without reading any books. I know that sounds like apostasy to some (and I'm hardly among those who will ever stop reading books, but I do read fewer than I used, as is no doubt the case with most folks), but I think it's still true.

Let's say you're someone who regularly reads three or four serious newspapers, online or in hard copy, from among the likes of the NYTimes, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian and the L.A. Times. And then you add in regular magazine reading from among such titles as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, Harpers, The Economist, and The New Republic, and throw in regular listening to NPR for good measure. I'd say you'd be an awfully well-informed person without ever reading a single book.

At 12:00 PM, Anonymous Donna said...

I absolutely don't disagree with you there. In fact, I am not nearly as well-read as many folks when it comes to periodicals. I just don't have time, or when I do have reading time, I prefer books.

In one of my jobs (media relations for a hospital) part of the job was monitoring newspapers and magazines. Such a deal. I loved reading the Wall Street Journal. The boss would sometimes have to remind us news junkies not to spend all day doing that part of the job.

Now, books engross me like nothing else. I only currently subscribe to one magazine Bon Appetit, bought from my nephew's magazine drive. Many issues are still in their plastic bags.

As I get older, I think it's not as much knowledge that I want as wisdom. If I have to make a choice, I choose books for the wisdom thing and I force myself out of the roost occasionally because I also get wisdom from talking to people.

Books also help me relax. Magazines don't. They just stimulate me in ways that are not always positive.

At 12:07 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good point about reading as stimulation. I do get plenty of stimulation from all those good pubs I've mentioned, and that's a big part of the pleasure of reading them, along with staying informed and of course reading good writing.

If it's wisdom you're seeking, perhaps I'll see you at the Feast in Little Italy this weekend (begins tonight in fact), where one will find plenty of wise guys! More about that soon.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Britta said...

I find Ulin's piece more whiny than insightful. Age changes how and what we read, yes. The various stresses we face change it, too. It's not the end of words as we know them.

Two perspectives come to mind: There are a lot of books out there and they're not all written equally. I blazed through Mary Roach's Bonk. I gave up on John Hart's The King of Lies. I blame not my attention span but my tastes. I've ceased to feel guilty if I drop a book partway through as I was made to feel as a tween.

Second: I've gotten comfortable with the fact that not everyone loves reading what or how I do. I used to crusade to get others to make books as their hobby, but I've stopped. It eats away at the time I could be spending reading.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Jeff Hershberger said...

Thanks for calling attention to this, John. For me, Ulin's difficulty reading is a symptom, a manifestation of a more general disquiet. Since I work on quietness myself, I'll post something about this article too.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Britta, you're so right on on so many levels. I too found that piece unbelievably whiny (I was trying not to tip my hand in order to let the conversation at least begin without my influencing it in either direction). Imagine a guy who's paid to read and write about what he's read complaining about it, and at a time when literally thousands of his colleagues have lost their jobs and careers. It just kind of boggled my mind. But it was at least admirable for its honesty.

Funny you mentioned Bonk, because I took note of that book awhile back, in part for it's bracing title, but also because it just seemed smart in many ways. And over the years I've often mentioned the dynamic we've all experienced of reading a 500-word article that seems way too long but also a 700-page book that you wanted never to finish. It all depends on the writing and the subject.

Finally, like all serious readers and hungry minds, you've described reading habits which I think of as a form of Darwinism: a book or any other medium has to be pretty good to sustain my interest (and many do), given the Darwinian competition of all the other great stuff vying for my attention and crowding my car, briefcase and bedside reading table. I sometime read a couple books at a time, occasionally three even, and if one is lagging, I just go on to the next. I once thought I was just odd, but have since learned that a lot of serious readers are like that (I recall having an aha moment some years ago when reading about how Bill Clinton reads. He too is voracious and Darwinian).

And lastly, a mention of your wisdom in dropping the crusade to get others to read. I kind of figure that just sharing one's enthusiasms (as we're doing here) is way more effective than lecturing others. People are turned on by others' enthusiasm and excitement, not by being told to eat their green beans. Reading good stuff is stimulating, exciting, often mind-blowing, even cool. The people who are meant to get that, do. The others can find that out, or not, as they see fit, on their own timetable.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Donna said...

Re: Little Italy. Maybe. But I doubt I'd see you. If memory serves, the feast is a bit of a zoo. I'd probably be tempted to hide out in Holy Rosary so I could sneak some wine and read the hymnals. ;)

At 1:28 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You gotta be old time Catholic to enjoy that. Sneaking sacramental wine is considered worse than blasphemy or possibly murder to the pre-Vatican II crowd. How transgressive of you to even imagine it.

And Jeff, I'll surely look forward to your coming take on this topic.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I most certainly was not that boy. And shame on him. At that age I was assimilating everything that was around me. As for reading, I've actually always found it difficult. Perhaps if I'd read lighter stuff that might have helped but once I started reading in earnest I wanted to read "good" stuff that stretched me. The sad fact is that much of that time was wasted because what I was reading was beyond me. But the gist of it stayed. Now I'm fifty I find it hard to stop what I'm doing and read. I do almost all my reading in the early hours of the morning but if I happen to have a decent night's sleep then no reading gets done usually. I should be reading now. My wife is having her afternoon nap and the flat is quiet but what am I doing? Catching up on my e-mails and making comments on blogs. Which all needs to be done but I won't think to go read later.

Reading has always been "work" to me but then "play" has always been "work" to me. If I read then I'm actively engaged in the process. It's not relaxing. I met with a very nice psychologist yesterday and one of the things we talked about was my inability to relax. I told her that the last psychologist had asked me to do relaxation exercises and I explained to my new doctor that it had been a total farce; I wasn't relaxing, it was "doing relaxation" which is another thing entirely.

As for the trend for clean layouts I have to say I am happy to see it but then I like things tidy and ordered; I like structure – another thing the nice lady and I talked about. I also find a lot of blogs hard on the eyes. Perhaps it's just me and the varifocals I have to wear these days but I like a lot of white space, small paragraphs, big print and as little clutter down the side of the text as possible. Your site's fine but I still make the font bigger.

At 9:28 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting perspective, Jim. A lot of food for thought in there. That thing you said about how so much of your reading at one point being beyond you resonated for me. I think it's a good thing to be challenged by reading sometimes. It forces us to use our brains more than we otherwise might. But of course you don't always want it that way. Sometimes--perhaps often--you just plain want enjoyment.

I'm quite sure that web design is trending in that direction for all the reasons you just outlined. You're obviously not alone in those preferences, and the pubs who are doing that are also mindful that (for many of them at least) their audience on average is at an age at which they really appreciate anything that's easier on the eyes. So thanks for your very personal reminder of why that matters, Jim.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Kim said...

It would be interesting to see how many writers were voracious readers, and if that was the impetus for their chosen path. There has to be a correlation. I think I had a book growing permanently out of my hand as a child. My books were the only thing that made pulling weeds in the garden bearable. Naturally, it also made me less efficient. I still can hear my mother telling me to put down that d* book and get my chores done.

But I could never resist the contraband books.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I would venture to guess that voracious reading was at the root of most writerly paths, Kim, since that's where most of us not only first learned to write but also where the idea began being implanted of trying it ourselves. And the more contraband they are in childhood, the more you hunger for them, just like samizdat literature in Stalinist Russia being fervently passed around.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Maria said...

My mind jumps and whirls (I'm also doing some dog training) in response to the interesting article you posted, John--an article that I would have read more slowly on paper.

Decades ago when I heard educational researcher Jane Healey speak at the City Club, she mentioned the "neural imperatives of childhood." She was referring to the developing brain and the fast pace of shows like Sesame Street. She speculated about what shows might do to attention span and actual structure of the brain in some kids, with the possible expectation that learning involves entertainment. She felt that neurons were activated in some ways by TV, in other ways by linear reading. Deja vu?

Increasingly, some folks of various ages have gotten very used to the lively on-screen skimming experience and the fun of racing fingers on a keyboard and might grow a little impatient with slow-form (traditional) reading. As an English teacher, I must take this into account as well as bridging the worlds of onscreen writing and text messaging with academic writing.

But even technophiles shouldn't forget our roots: the joys in the early years of turning pages of giant picture books, munching Alpha-bit cereal, or writing on the sidewalk.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I remember reading Jane Healy on this topic, Maria. She was a woman well ahead of her time on this issue.


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