Learning to Read Again


I love books.

But lately—with lately meaning, oh, the last decade or so—a truer statement might be this: I like the idea of books. I like the idea of those big, bound collections of ideas that might stimulate my thinking and change my life in profound ways.

But the reality—a reality shaped and molded by our ever-more-information-everywhere-all-the-time internet age—is that I’ve actually become quite accustomed to looking for big ideas … in very small packages.

My brain, you see, has become acclimated to the internet’s mode of existence: high-speed skimming. And as a result, even though I still love the idea of books and I still buy books, I rarely read them all the way through anymore.

That’s something I’d like to change in 2017.


The photo above is of a stack of books that’s been sitting on my desk for the last couple of months. I assembled them because I was pulling together a new talk that I give to church groups on the influence of technology on our lives.

I’ve read chunks and chapters of all of these books, several of which focus specifically on technology (such as Nicolas Carr’s well-received The Shallows and Sherry Turkle’s similarly seminal tome Alone Together). Others focus more on cultural issues (Diane West’s The Death of the Grown-Up, David Brooks’ On Paradise Drive, Leonard Sax’s The Collapse of Parenting) and spiritual growth (Dallas Willard and Don Simpson’s Revolution of Character).

But the sad truth is this: I don’t think I’ve read any of these books cover to cover. You know, the way we used to do. The way I used to do.

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicolas Carr writes of this exact phenomenon:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Amen, brother. It’s a great observation. And I’ll bet there’s more where they came from. But, well, I’ll actually have to finish the book to know for sure.

So as the new year comes into view, I’d like to strengthen those atrophied reading muscles. It’s going to require some retraining of my brain, some undoing of the skimming grooves that the infinite internet and my omnipresent smartphone have conspired to carve into my cerebral cortex. I don’t pretend that this resolution will be automatic or easy; in fact, I know it won’t be.

But I’d like to keep trying.

And that idea, boiled down, is also my representative stance when it comes to media and entertainment in general. We know we need to change. We know we have some bad habits. We even know that those habits may very well be influencing our children. I may not make as much progress in 2017 as I’d like, but I want to give it another shot nonetheless.

And whatever your own media weaknesses and bad habits might be, I hope that 2017 can be a year of growth and change for you, too. (But we’re probably both going to have to log off now to accomplish that goal.)

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

charitysplace More than 1 year ago
With me, it depends. An excellent writer can hook me for hours, to the distraction of all else. Alas, many are not excellent writers. (In fairness, TV is the same. The only thing that I HAD to marathon the last two months was "The Crown" and "The Man in the High Castle.")
Alex Clark More than 1 year ago
I've been into reading all my life; and I'm also a huge gamer and movie and TV viewer.  I don't think that the electronic stuff has adversely affected my ability to concentrate on reading or anything; what has decreased the amount of reading I do is simply being out of school and having a steady job.  In the past I did at least 75% or 85% of my reading on the bus to and from school and in-between classes (how I ever managed to have time for reading the actual textbooks I'll never know).  Back then I tended to go through like a novel a week, but now my pace is much slower.  I read during my lunch breaks at work, and whenever I'm somewhere where I have to wait; like in line at the DMV or the doctor's office ^^, but not much beyond that.  I rarely read when I am at home.  Also when I was younger there were more opportunities to travel with my family, and I would always read in the car or on the airplane; now that I have a full time job such vacations are much rarer.

Oh yeah, I also usually read when I'm out at restaurants; I used to try doing it at the dinner table at home too, but my parents put a stop to that.  I have somewhat perfected the art of reading and conversing with the rest of the people around me at the same time.   

Overall, as much as I've always loved reading, 99% of the time the truth is that reading is something I do to pass the time when I can't do anything else.  often if it were possible for me to be watching a TV show or playing a video game, I'd probably be doing those things, but when your in line for something, or on a long car or airplane trip, or on the bus to school (before smart phones existed ^^) that wasn't possible.  So I read.  Sometimes I wonder; hypothetical if it were possible to be watching any movie/tv show or playing any video game no matter where I was, would I ever read at all?  Maybe not; so maybe I can be thankful that its still not possible to do that yet (though we may get there one day ^^;;)

Also I should mention...like 95% of what I read is fiction.  I wonder if that makes a difference to whether or not this affect Adam is talking about takes hold?  Maybe its easier to stay invested in reading if your doing it for pleasure/entertainment than if you're doing it for education?   I do think sometimes its harder for me to stay invested in non-fiction books than it is fiction.   It also seems like most other Christians around me read almost exclusively non-fiction, and I wonder what is the difference between me and them?  
Pablo Sanfilippo More than 1 year ago
I thought the exact same think maybe 3 weeks ago. I love books, I love reading. So, why  can't I enjoy a book like I used to before and without being distracted? But I don't think is technology what is changing our brains, but actually social media. When reading books or watching a movie we are focused on one thing for maybe one or two hours. With social media, we only concentrate on one thing for just a couple of seconds. Think about scrolling on Facebook, Instagram or something like that. It's just five second before going to a completely different story. Our brains got used to this, and now is difficult to enjoy things that take more time, are "slower", but are far more rewarding.
I decided then to take initiative and do something for a change. I limited my use of social media to about 10 or 15 minutes a day and now I'm really seeing results.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

I love reading and whenever I read a book it is almost always a physical copy. I read a couple of books on my iPad but I always personally found a physical copy to be more convenient. Besides, who doesn't love the smell of a brand new book?
Marissa More than 1 year ago
Instead of jumping straight to your usual "woe is us, technology has ruined everything" attitude, my suggestion would be to use technology as it's actually intended: to help you do things you want to do with more efficiency. That includes reading! I've found that since I started reading on my Kindle and/or my laptop, I've read far more books than I have since I was in school where reading was required. I've read 20 novels in the past six months, and have plenty more upcoming on my to-read list. There's nothing more convenient than hearing of a book that sounds interesting, pulling up your library website, checking the book out and diving in within seconds without ever leaving the comfort of your couch. So much better than when you had to drive to a bookstore or library to pick up something to read!

See? Technology does have its uses.
GodTreasure4U More than 1 year ago
I don't think it's the mode of reading; it's the ability to concentrate for a long period of time.  The same thing has happened to me, even trying to read on my kindle, and I want to change that, too.  Besides, I love books.  I love the feel and the smell of the pages.  Less eye strain, too.  
Joshua Kroeger More than 1 year ago
I agree, Adam!  In fact, I've been reading Lord of the Rings (an annual tradition), but sadly I find myself spending more time on Facebook.