Doug's Blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Slow reading & our butterfly minds

We are losing our minds to distraction, to links and pings and popups — and slow reading may be among the best, most available answers.

This is very much what “slow food” is to fast food: something more real and reviving than a drive-through convenience that you consume while doing other stuff, and that really, if we're honest, makes us feel kind of crappy. When you read the way we’re all reading these days — scanning for better options, hopping into links, stopping every 10 minutes to check messages or answer texts — you wind up with an unsettled mind that hasn’t absorbed much but can’t seem to stop. This is no better for the inner system than a Doritos Locos Taco.

A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress,” leads with a reading group in Wellington, New Zealand that meets once a week in a cafe to shut off their cells and just ... read. For an hour. This may well be becoming something of a movement —though if they had to go to New Zealand to find an example, maybe so far it’s kind of scattered. Still, it makes sense to me: “a movement populated by frazzled book lovers who miss old-school reading ... before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans.”

“... Reading text punctuated with links leads to weaker comprehension than reading plain text, several studies have shown,” the article says. “... Slow reading means a return to a continuous, linear pattern, in a quiet environment free of distractions. Advocates recommend setting aside at least 30 to 45 minutes in a comfortable chair far from cellphones and computers.”

I keep trying to do this, but as my wife (who’s also trying, off and on) puts it, after a long day of work and stress and so forth, hopping on the Internet to read junky news feels like it should be a reward. Should be. It's like eating candy: you think you’re going to love it, then you wind up feeling a little guilty and kind of empty. We both keep saying we’re going to set aside time to shut off the laptop (or iPad, in her case) after dinner. I keep saying we should just read.

Make that, I should just read. Maybe there’s a club you can join, but I think it’s a personal choice — and always available. In fact, here are the ways that, it occurs to me now, slow reading is a lot like another activity that I know the value of and keep saying I need to get back to doing — mindfulness meditation:

1. You have to set aside time for it. Twenty minutes at least; 45 minutes would be great. If you can sit still that long.

2. It’s really hard to sit still that long.

3. The practice centers on learning to focus, to stay with one object of attention. (A book, the breath, a story, the sensations in the body.)

4. That’s a lot harder than it sounds! Especially at first.

5. You don’t want to judge yourself. Just keep coming back to the focus. Everyone’s mind wanders.

6. The more you do this, the less yours will tend to.

7. Studies say this is great for the brain’s health, for reducing stress, for coping with modern life.

8. The world will still be full of distractions — you just won’t need to flutter after every one. Your mind and your day will open up. You'll have a sense of more space, and you'll be better able to get things done.

So tonight. I won’t open the laptop. I have a book right here, which I’ve so far failed to get into. Before the library wants it back, I will open it — and stay with it. My mind will wander; I’ll get impatient, I’ll start criticizing the story. I’ll crave the Huffington Post, the Borowitz Report, the Daily Show.

But I won’t go. For half an hour at least, I will just read.

So I say now.

(By the way, I didn't want to speckle this piece with links — but here is the WSJ story. It's definitely worth slowing down to read.)

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Monday, 10 August 2020

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