Notes & Essays

'I Miss Reading.' Why No One Reads Anymore in 2020

A quest to reclaim the happiness of reading.
IMAGE UNSPLASH
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“I am having a hard time reading books now,” seems to be a catchphrase which I’ve been hearing a lot from my circle of friends whom I’ve always identified with as fellow booklovers. Mind you, some of these are the same people who still keep buying books in an ever-growing “To Read” pile accumulating by a bedside table and who got all riled up when Marie Kondo supposedly said not to keep more than 30 titles. Some are those who aggressively insist that they would rather be in the company of books rather than their fellow human beings, or how their idea of a home is one that is more library than a house (and all those other bibliophile clichés). But these are the same people who have secretly confided that they haven’t actually “finished” the books they bought last year yet. Sound familiar?

I have to admit that in my own insistence to maintain the book-reader image, I was initially dismissive of people (perhaps even judgmental to a point) who told me it’s now difficult to read books. But when I took a long hard look at myself and the pile of half-read and unread books too in my keep, I begrudgingly realized that I might be going through something similar myself. Perhaps “I’m having a hard time reading now,” often told shamefully in hushed whispers, is actually a plea for help and hints at a larger phenomenon happening to a lot of people.

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“It feels like I have a disease.”

This is what one friend lamented to me when I tried checking up on where she was on a particular book we had agreed to start reading at the same time. She describes despairingly—like pining for some lost childhood—how reading just wasn’t that easy or pleasurable anymore. How frustratingly difficult it was now to concentrate on a normally long sentence. How the mind easily slides off the page.

We talked about those days when against one’s good sense, a book could keep one up until the ungodly hours of the morning. That pure quiet joy upon simply turning to the very first page of a newly bought book, then the hours blissfully and unmindfully lost with the turning of the pages. There would be that beaming satisfaction that accompanies that soft thud, more felt than heard, of a hardbound closing after one has just finished reading a book.

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They seem like distant memories now—stuff for nostalgic reminiscing, like talking about how kids used to play outdoors in the streets or how everything was so cheap back in the old days. We try to tell ourselves we still get some kind of reading done every now and then but there is a hollow ring to it. And then there are always those adulthood excuses—that toxic workload that reduces you to an inconsolable heap in bed at the end of the day, one too many things on the to-do list, or for some people married life, having kids. The world of today seems to conspire against books being read.

But for whatever reason we tell ourselves, the actual culprits to blame for our predicament was perhaps not too far away. There on the table between us were our smartphones—their blank screens looking up as we talked, dark and ominous.

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Photo by UNSPLASH.

Technology Has Rewired How We Read

That day, perhaps a decade ago, when we bought our first smartphones? That day heralded our gradual falling away with books.

Two things that I’ve noticed have changed with my reading habits from when I was younger. One is that I now read extremely fast—that is, the kind of reading for going through my Facebook or Twitter set at a pace almost as fast as the scrolling action would permit. I doubt if it’s technically “reading”—more like skipping and skimming most of the time. But it is, I will claim to a large extent, efficient: I read the headlines. I pause for the posts that seem promising to lead to a chuckle at the end. Huge texts put me off but I can catch snippets and key words on the fly and still end up with more or less, the main gist of things. 

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The second thing has to do with the content itself. Social media is a shifting collage of random odds and ends, topics strung together without any common unifying thread. I could be reading the beginning of a serious political article one second and then be greeted with an irresistibly cute cat meme and then an account of a friend’s latest anxiety attack all within the same half-minute. Such a field of variation of topic, tone, and language is unique to the nature of a social media feed, requiring an acrobatic shuffling of focus and attention. It’s basically selective reading at an almost-subconscious level—having to constantly filter out topics that don’t interest me, weeding out distracting elements like spam and ads and other trivialities other people insist are worthwhile of sharing. It’s something we’ve become quite good at.

But these newfound skills necessary for navigating the flux of the Internet is a poor methodology when reading a book. The slow sustained pace of the static printed page requires shifting to a lower gear—to a different plane of attention more focused on the larger scale of the text and less dependent on clickbait captions and visual stimuli. Even physically turning a page feels more demanding and takes forever compared to flicking a screen. So when I came to the point that I was instinctively trying to jump lines when reading a book and I had to keep reading simple paragraphs over and over again, I realized that years of social media use have taken its toll, and my mechanisms for focus and attention have been gradually worn out and I find it harder now to shift gears.

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Unlike going through our social media feeds, we can’t just blur through a book’s pages as if we were online. There’s a reason why booklovers insist that a book is only truly read if it’s from cover to cover. Reading is a prolonged and concentrated effort in dealing with only the subject at hand, weaving through the logical transitions paragraph after paragraph and building a comprehensive thought after one has gone through the entirety of the text. It is, after all, a skill that requires considerable and constant practice. Simply put, the kind of reading we do in social media is easy, messy, random and incidental.

Comparatively, it makes reading a book almost look like a meditative practice—reflective, purposive, enlightening, and utterly demanding.

It’s a matter of our diminishing attention spans. When the Internet became a thing at the turn of the millennium, the average human attention span dropped to 12 seconds, meaning that a person on average spent 12 seconds on an online post before losing interest and moving on the next one. As Internet speeds increased and online content diversified, proliferated, and made their way from our desks and into our palms, the attention span dropped further to an average of eight seconds in 2018. This ought to be very alarming, especially since the attention span of a goldfish has been pegged at nine seconds. (On the other hand, if you’ve made it this far into the article, congratulate yourself for still being here.)

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Couple this with the fact that the Philippines is the world’s “Social Networking Capital” with Filipinos spending an average of over four hours on social media (twice as long online as the worldwide average at two hours) or over four hours of going through microbits of mostly throwaway unprocessed information and it’s not farfetched at all to reason out why we ranked the lowest in reading comprehension among 79 countries in a recent study.

But it’s not like we haven’t been warned of the imminent decay of our reading abilities. As early as the '90s, American essayist Sven Birkerts already predicted in his aptly titled book, The Gutenberg Elegies, of the adverse and widespread effect the encroaching electronic culture will have on our lives—especially on the reading of literature. He posited that the Internet as a medium for the written text to replace print would usher in an age of relentless pursuit for speed, connectivity, and superabundance of information. This, however, was a prospect that was extremely appealing to any teenager growing up in the early 2000s as I would testify for myself. Those early years of dial-up Internet were exciting times to live in—the world seemingly having shrunk overnight and the possibilities limited only by how many “surfing” hours there were still left in the prepaid card.

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But with the introduction of any groundbreaking new technology comes the proportionately groundbreaking new pitfalls. Birkerts predicted an era of constant distraction, of the decline of sustained and focused reading, which (to sum up the thesis of his book) would lead to a society unable to focus and make sense of the narratives happening around them. Fast forward to the present day and Birkerts’ predictions seem to be spot on. We are indeed living in a world where people everywhere are constantly glued to their screens—in jeepneys and buses, while walking or driving, filling the spare in-between seconds of every coffee and bathroom break, competing for attention inside classrooms, churches, dinners, and meetings while ignoring within those moments, the tangible reality of the world around them. And with the surplus of information conveniently—relentlessly—fed to us, it has become a struggle (and a severe handicap for a lot of people) distinguishing which narratives are necessary or helpful—or even real (think fake news). Is it a wonder why the world seems to be tearing itself apart more than usual?

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And how is a book supposed to compete for attention in such a world as ours?

Photo by UNSPLASH.

Take Time to Unplug and Go Analog

The words on a printed page and on a screen may not look that different. The words in a novel when viewed on paperback and on a browser are the same. But it is the “hows” of reading that have changed quite significantly. How we facilitate the medium of words has a subtle but theoretically larger impact on our thought processes and consequently, to our lifestyles, than the words themselves. To quote a time-honored marketing adage—the medium is the message. When the medium is fast-paced, blurry and random, the haste and inconsistency spill over into our personal lives.

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Which is why we are seeing the rise of the “unplugging movement” or people who are calling for a reduction in the amount of hours we spend mindlessly scrolling through our feeds with the intent of getting back to the simple things that matter more in our lives, whether it be spending time with loved ones, taking a walk or riding a bike, or simply finding time to be alone with a book.

Slowing down, however, is fast becoming the new luxury when it comes to the demands of our modern jobs—many which require constant screen time. Completely detaching from the digital world is a practical impossibility unless you intend to become a hermit. Reverting back to the pace, focus, and immersive mindset conducive for print reading doesn’t exactly happen overnight either, requiring prolonged detoxification away from our gadgets just for the natural pace of life to settle back in. To get back to reading a book, with the same amount of enjoyment as only millennials and earlier generations would only know before we took the electronic leap, is something that for now, we can only get back to by making the difficult choice of getting some real time away from our screens.

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Personally, in my quest to reclaim the happiness of reading and to finally go through my pile of unread books, it was necessary to cut ties with a number of things. Games and apps had to be uninstalled and vows made never to install them again. Subscriptions had to be canceled. But not all technology is evil and some can be used to one’s advantage, like blocking and management apps that can become useful in curbing time spent on social media when sheer will simply isn’t enough.

What works as well are simple acts such as leaving the phone at home and taking a book to read to a park bench instead (and what an overwhelming relief it can be to be walking outside without the weight of a phone and its inbox in your pocket!). Treating reading sessions as “appointments” in one’s daily planner can be really helpful in setting mental expectations and avoiding the distraction of other tasks set for the day. Or even reading out loud, or at least mouthing out the words while reading, which admittedly looks childish, is a quaint foolproof way of getting back to the slow calm and sensuous pace that works best for the kind of reading that is most pleasurable.

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Whatever works for you and for whatever its worth, our hyper-connected, yet fragmented thoughts and lives online are constant reminders that from time to time, we deserve something more solid, more real, and consistent—like a book. And despite the setbacks of the age we live in, I’ll always still be on the lookout for the next book to add to my “To-Read” pile.  

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Derik Cumagun
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