If you’re like me, not for months. I used to be a voracious reader, from short stories to dense, lengthy homework assignments, but now even the most compelling books don’t hold my attention. I tell myself that it’s due to a busy schedule and a lot of worries…but somehow I have plenty of time to futz around on the Internet.
No, I think that how I read has changed. Most of my reading is now done on the phone, computer or iPad: I skim headlines, my eyes flicking up to the email icon every 15 seconds. I try to dig into a long magazine article, but then a text bloops, and I feel I have to reply immediately. When I do sit down with a physical book, I can’t get through more than a few pages without picking up my phone “just to check something.” My eyes don’t seem to absorb text the way they used to.
And, according to a recent story from Note To Self on NPR, that may be precisely the case. People of my generation (and older, of course) learned what the program calls “slow reading”—the kind where you lie down on the couch with a novel or sit at a desk with a highlighter. But reading has changed over the last decade or two: We’ve prioritized fast, screen-based gulps of text over long (real, physical) books, and we’re losing the ability to slow read as we perfect the skimming, eye-flicking style that works best for electronic text. NPR host Manoush Zomorodi calls this “non-linear” reading, in which the flow is interrupted by hyperlinks, ads, alerts, texts or emails—basically anything that blinks or glows or somehow drags your attention away from the story.
And as screen reading gradually crowds out paper reading, our brains are literally changing: According to Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, “Our research is beginning to show us that there are various aspects of the reading-brain circuit that are changing along with the amount of time that we are spending on the Internet and digital reading. The human brain is in fact adapting too well to the particular characteristics to Internet reading.”
The upshot: The more electronic reading we do, the harder it is to slow read. As Zomorodi says, “Use your ability to slow read or lose your ability to slow read.”
Which brings us to the kids. We adults learned to read before e-readers and the Internet existed. What about the younger generation? That’s what worries Dr. Wolf, who notes that we don’t know how screens are affecting kids’ reading processes.
What we do know is that we retain more information via physical books than electronic ones. NPR reports on a Norwegian study that assigned a mystery novel to 50 adults; half read a paperback and half read a Kindle. The participants who read the paperback remembered more information about the chronology of events than those who had used the Kindle.
We also know that students who take notes with pen and paper retain more of a lecture than those who take notes via laptop. Zomorodi speculates that perhaps something about the tactile quality of paper, or the spacial relationships of the text on a page, helps us remember and understand information better.
Of course, e-readers are here to stay. I don’t want to pack five hardcovers for a beach vacation, and I doubt my kids will either. But what we’re after, according to Dr. Wolf, is developing a “discerning bi-literate brain.” Sometimes we need a quick hit of information from a screen. And sometimes we need long, quiet stretches of time to delve into a book or document: Dr. Wolf reports that two weeks of daily reading strengthened her attention span for long, complex novels. Zomorodi concluded that her own 7-year-old son was going to exclusively read physical books for the summer, even though the librarian had provided a list of online books and a log-in.
In our quest for quick hits of information, for the Twitter feed of news and the text messages of grocery lists and gossip, we can’t let the slow-reading skills disappear—either for us or our kids. I’ve often felt like my phone is a kind of pulsing, sentient thing that demands my attention all day long, and that the former literary pleasures of my life have been replaced by near-compulsive swiping, clicking and button-pressing.
And I may be right. As Zomorodi says, “If you feel like a device or technology is messing with you, you might actually be on to something.”