I knew I was in trouble when I was called from class to come immediately to the school library.
I was in the eighth grade and I never got into trouble. But the librarian didn’t summon one of her aides from a class unless something big was wrong. I didn’t really care for Pernie Mae King, but she seemed to like me. I seemed to be her most trusted aide that year. But I was in trouble this time.
When I arrived, she confronted me with the checkout slips for about a dozen books — and I knew I had been caught. The library allowed students to check out no more than two books at a time, which was a painful limit for someone who read as many books as I did. I had been taking as many books as I wanted and hiding the checkout slips in a secret place behind the aide’s desk. But she had found my hiding place and figured out what was going on.
I quietly walked to my locker on the second floor and brought back all the books which my criminal actions had accumulated. But Pernie Mae King never said another word about it. I don’t think she really wanted to punish someone for the crime of reading too many books.
Reading was central to my young life and it remained a central part of my adult life. Even during periods when I was working long hours, I still found the time to devour all sorts of books.
At the peak of my adult reading life, I might have a dozen books spread around the house that I was reading at once. I read all sorts of things. Novels, history, politics, science, theology, sociology, philosophy, humor. I accumulated more than a thousand books and they all meant something to me.
It was very common for me to be so engrossed in a book — especially with a good novel — that I would end up staying awake reading until sunrise. I would keep telling myself that I’d read one more chapter. Then another. And another. Part of me knew I was lying to myself, but I ignored that because I wanted to see what happened next.
I’m telling you all this so you’ll know what a contrast my life today has become.
I don’t really like to talk about this, because I feel an odd sense of shame about it. Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve read fewer and fewer books. It was a puzzle when I first noticed a change going on. I was still interested in the same sorts of books. I would buy them and start reading — but something odd was happening.
I felt distracted. I had trouble concentrating. My mind wandered to other things. None of these things had ever happened before.
I’m rarely able to make myself finish a book these days. That’s a shocking statement for someone who used to read multiple books every week. (Most of the books which I actually “read” right now are audiobooks.)
I absorb more information today than I ever have. I’m constantly reading something, but the things I read today are shorter and more shallow. I touch on a million shallow subjects whereas I used to take deep dives into hundreds of subjects. What this means is that I have a passing familiarity with more things — and I can tell you I’m familiar with some random subject — but I don’t have the depth of understanding of any of those subjects which I used to gain by spending many hours of reading and thought by going much deeper.
I slowly came to understand that the more time I spent online, the less time I spent reading books. I resisted doing anything about it, though, because I don’t want to make the changes that would be necessary.
Although I had already been spending a good bit of time online before then, I date the real beginning of this problem as the period when I started to use Facebook seriously in early 2009. It’s not something specific about Facebook which caused the problem, but that seems to have been the turning point for me.
It’s not just the amount of time I spend online that’s the problem. It’s the nature of what I consume online. When I browse social media and then flit between dozens of sites which offer more information than I can possibly consume, there is an overload of interesting material. I do what most people today do. I skim and I make snap judgments from shallow reading.
The worst part about this is that all this shallow reading makes us believe we know more about a subject than we do.
One of the things which shocked me when I noticed it years ago is that most people make comments about links — on social media such as Facebook — which they haven’t even read. They see a headline and possibly a brief paragraph explaining what an article is about — and then they launch into their opinion about this link, even though they have no idea what the article says.
People frequently make Facebook comments on my articles which prove to me that they have no idea what my article said. They just saw a subject and wanted to show what they know or express what they believe, whether it’s truly related to the point of the article or not.
Digital media are causing us to have terrible habits when it comes to reading and thinking. We don’t read things which we’re completely unfamiliar with in order to learn something new. We mostly skim things which we believe we will agree with — or which will give us three easy tips to teach us something ridiculous.
Because we are accustomed to this shallow snacking from a never-ending buffet, we almost never take the time to slow down and give genuine contemplation to something which we need to deeply understand.
We have access to information for pretty much every minute of the day. If you’re waiting in traffic, you can check to see what’s been posted on Facebook, how many “likes” your latest picture on Instagram has and whether there’s any “news” on Flipboard in the last 10 minutes. There’s always something new. You can’t see it all.
In other words, we never allow ourselves to get bored.
In the pre-digital world, we didn’t have access to information like this, so we prized what we had access to. Many of us treated our books and magazines lovingly, because they were a curated window on the world for us. We learned and grew as we engaged authors at length — having inner conversations with them, sometimes embracing their ideas and sometimes rejecting them as cranks.
Today, we float across the media landscape like a butterfly flitting across a meadow. We have forgotten how to give our attention to one thing at a time. We have forgotten how to eliminate the things from our lives which honestly have no value to us.
There are a lot of implications to this, but I’ll have to return to those another time. We need to consider how all of this affects how we raise children — how to teach them to be real readers, not just information grazers who never learn how to engage deeply. Television is something which can rot a kid’s brain, but I’ve come to understand lately that unfettered use of the Internet is even worse, because it changes the structure (and desires) of your brain.
For now, I’ll just say that I know I must make changes in my own life, although I confess that I haven’t figured out the path forward yet.
I need to eliminate about 90 percent of what I read these days. It’s not that there’s anything especially wrong with these things I read. It’s simply that most of what I read has absolutely no importance for my life — and never will — and all that useless junk is what prevents me from paying more attention to the things which do matter to me.
I’ve talked with you before about cutting my use of social media, but I suspect I’m going to have to curtail my use even more radically. I might need to get rid of social media and pretty much ban myself from about 98 percent of the things I currently read online.
I miss reading books constantly. My brain was healthier when I did that. I wasn’t constantly looking for something new, like some child with ADHD.
I think my thinking was healthier, too. I was more likely to come up with actionable plans for things I wanted to do — instead of wasting my time absorbing useless information and then complaining that I haven’t had time to do the things that really mattered to me.
Something has to change for me. I’m not happy about the changes I’m going to have to make, because I’ve become quite happy with my endless buffet of useless information. But if I want to think more clearly and do better work, I need to focus.
I’ll know I’m making progress when I once again find myself staying up too late reading a book — instead of staying up too late grazing on useless information in a web browser.