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Cognition

Reading, more or less

“Don’t read trash.” This was the last thing Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson said to the audience at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn after a reading and Q&A, amending the writerly advice writerly people always give to the question of how one becomes a better writer. Hardly anyone with a smartphone needs to actually “read more” — reading too little isn’t the problem. “We read while we’re socializing, working, shopping, relaxing, walking, commuting, urinating,” wrote Virginia Heffernan in Magic & Loss. “From a nation that can’t stop eating, we’ve become a nation that can’t stop reading.”

We’re cloyed with the frequent dips into social media, the glut of text messages, emails, Slack. Few actually nourish. Every day feels like the morning after Halloween, and so a reprieve from text, from reading, can feel welcome; even necessary. Not surprisingly, television watching, its days thought numbered by a fierce competition with the internet for eyeballs, is up. (If anything the internet has simply enabled more of it.) By one estimate, the average American watches more than five hours of television per day, an increase of about five hours per week over the 1990 average as reported by Nielsen. That same year, the The New York Times covered a landmark television addiction study which found — again, surprising no one — that we tend to turn to television for its narcotic effects: “The strongest pattern predicting that people would watch television in the evening was that in the morning they felt the day was going badly, and by the afternoon they were in a bad mood.” I’m not being flip when I say the next four years look great for TV ratings. It promotes a cycle that guarantees self-defeat.

This is not a polemic against television. In this article about becoming a reader I mention it for two reasons. In the first place, because among the most common New Year’s Resolutions are to “read more” and “watch less television,” and even a modest reduction in screen time avails both. And in the second, television is a mental anesthetic: “For all viewers,” the same report says, “television tends to elicit a state of ‘attentional inertia,’ marked by lowered activity in the part of the brain that processes complex information.” By contrast, a recent study found that reading fiction increases empathy and embodied cognition (the theory we can “think” with our whole bodies). Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today concluded “that if we encourage our children to read — as opposed to tuning out through television — theory of mind and the ability to be compassionate to another person’s suffering will improve.”

The world needs readers more than ever. But the small gain, the carrot on the stick, the elusive precondition for forming good habits, can be difficult to come by. Like the beginnings of any self-improvement regimen one expects gains quickly, to see the subcutaneous layer of fatty, yellow ‘attritional inertia’ visibly shrink away. This is hard work for generations who can’t remember their pre-internet brains, still harder for those who were born jacked into this noisome state of “always on.” (Between the two poles is a range netting most us.) Asked by the Guardian in 2010 to respond to writer Nicholas Carr’s polarizing essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Sarah Churchwell said this: “The brain is like any other muscle — if you don’t stretch it, it gets both stiff and flabby. But if you exercise it regularly, and cross-train, your brain will be flexible, quick, strong and versatile.” Commenters felt Carr’s trespasses into neuroscience were dubious and misguided, but on the whole Churchwell supported his larger point about post-internet cognition: something’s changed. Few over 35 can’t relate to this passage from Carr’s essay: “Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose…. Now my concentration starts to drift two or three pages…. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

The struggle is real. Like Carr, I can’t read a book for more than fifteen or twenty minutes before my attention founders.

Not to be discouraged, however. Compensating for the mental undulations of a post-internet brain just takes a little practice (which some might call discipline, but discipline sounds so dreadfully dull). Here are a few suggestions which might be of some help:

1. “Having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.” Italo Calvino, from If on a winter’s night a traveler.

2. Find material suited to the chunks of time you already have. I read short stories before bed because I can’t notch more than ten or twelve pages before I fall asleep. Audiobooks are excellent companions when dish-doing. In the morning in the half hour between when our nanny arrives and my work day starts I’ll read from an essay collection.

3. Read for entertainment. How you define the E word is up to you. In an essay defending genre fiction, Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer in 2000 for The (highly recommended) Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, reproached the book-loving world for having too narrow a view: “I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.” Reading isn’t an intellectual penance — enjoy yourself.

4. Get help. Ceridwen Dovey investigated what it was like working with a bibliotherapist in this piece over at The New Yorker. “Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect,” and a bibliotherapist serves as a sort of personal librarian. If that sounds a little too new age-y for you, consider a class. Last year my wife and I did a six-book guided reading at The Center for Fiction in New York. You’re more likely to follow through on any sort of resolution if it’s made you accountable to someone other than yourself.

5. Read slowly. Comprehension of a single text is more important than speed-reading through several. In general I caution against emphasizing the number of books. Pressuring yourself to meet some arbitrary number might discourage you from longer or more difficult literature.

6. Having more than a book going at a time can be a handy bulwark against a “wayward” mind. I bounce between three or four at a time. It’s important to vary them between genre, subjects, and authors. The share of fiction is disproportionately white and male.

“We are in a race between education and disaster,” Neil Postman warned in Amusing Ourselves to Death. A “total disaster,” actually, to quote our gold-headed robber-baron-in-chief. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. In 2013, the National Endowment of the Arts found a slight (but possibly statistically irrelevant) reversal in a decades-long reading decline: “52 percent of 18–24 year-olds had a read a book outside of school or work, the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002,” wrote Jordan Weissman in The Atlantic. But the long view remains bleak. The number of Americans with a bachelor’s degree continues to rise while literary reading rates trend downward. Christopher Ingraham wraps up a Washington Post article from last year portending certain doom: “If changing reading habits are indeed making us less able to see things from other people’s points of view, that could have drastic consequences across the board.” Right now, how to convince Americans en masse to read better is anybody’s guess.

I’m sure the answer’s in a book somewhere.

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