One of the most intriguing articles I have read lately is “The death of reading is threatening the soul” by Phillip Yancey. “Books help define who I am,” He says. Yancey is a professional writer and blogger whose office holds his personal books, more than 5,000 of them, well read and marked as potential references in his work.
Yancey’s title got my attention, but the opening lines held me: “I am going through a personal crisis…. I used to love reading.” He is not necessarily reading less, but he is spending less time and effort with deep reading. Yancey blames the omnipresence of technology for the decline in the time he spends with his personal serious reading. “The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.”
Oh, how Yancey’s comment resonated with yours truly. In maintaining my schedule of reading at the end of each day, online is not an option. When I read in a web browser, it is difficult—at times almost impossible—to concentrate if click-bait and advertisements are in my field of vision. It is impossible if the ad is one those blankety-blank blinkers.
Another problem is gauging the length of the piece. How much longer is the article? To get the answer, I look at the scroll bar on the right edge of the screen—where the ads and click-bait loom. I buy so few things now that advertisements no longer tempt me, but teaser headlines are hard to pass by. My real downfall is underlined links within the article. I am a footnote reader and I struggle not to click. Of course, if I had more patience or greater powers of concentration there would not be a problem, but I don’t. And neither does Yancey. We click.
The click takes me to something mildly interesting, that has another underlined link that takes my attention somewhere new. What was the original story about? I’ve forgotten. That may be reading, but it is not serious, or deep reading.
Yancey quotes a 2016 Nielsen report, “… the average American devotes more than 10 hours per day to consuming (electronic) media … 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.” It is the loss of concentration that concerns Yancey. His thesis is that continued interruptions are killing our powers of concentration and making it more difficult to focus for extended periods. He refers to scientific studies for supporting evidence. I am proud of not looking for the studies, but if Yancey had underlined links in his article. Who knows? But I likely would have clicked.
I’m trusting Yancey here: “Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up.” Opening emails and clicking on links to satisfy our curiosity apparently lights up our pleasure centers. The argument appeals to me. It gives me a plausible explanation for clicking on those links. Most of the time, I am not happy about having clicked, but it felt good at the time. Like so many things that make one feel good, yielding to the click temptation is habit forming. It is also destructive.
Most of those clicks lead to what Yancey terms mental clutter, exposure to information but not to a depth of understanding. He believes that mental clutter is hurting us. In his article, Yancey gets more deeply into its threat to the soul. I did not need to be convinced, but reading his article was time well spent. Even though it was online, it has no embedded links.
Yancey is among a chorus of serious thinkers and researcher who advocate a regimen for reading because will power is not enough to resist the distractions. Set aside a specific amount of time, preferably at the same time each day for serious concentrated reading—meaning not in a web browser. Then, stick to it. Make it a routine part of your life. In effect build a wall against the distractions.
It is easy to say that everyone has the time to read seriously. “Everyone” is a generalization, but if we change it to everyone who spends more than two hours a day browsing the web or watching television, then I say yes, everyone has time to read. In the September issue of “Smoke Signals,” Olive T Reed demonstrated how a reading regimen of only one hour each day is enough time to finish more than 50 novels per year. It is worth noting that Reed’s reading speed is much slower than other advocates of concentrated reading.
Yancey quotes reading advocate Charles Chu: “Here’s the simple truth behind reading a lot of books. It’s not that hard. We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.”
We tend to allow the urgency of television, or the dopamine rush of the internet, to keep us from deep reading.