There’s a lot of anxiety about reading these days. There’s my own anxiety about losing my ‘reading mojo’ a couple of years ago when I was going through a stressful time, and more recently friends are telling me that they can’t get into a novel because their mind is distracted by social media and their attention span has been reduced to the level of a gnat.
(What is the attention span of a gnat? Just wondering).
Anyway, I think we are in the midst of a Reading Anxiety Epidemic. I know that I can only really get into a novel while on holiday, when wifi access is limited and my mind is free of distraction. If I read a novel at home, it is fitful and stop-starty – not the ideal way to immerse myself in a literary work.
When I talk to people about their reading they are often really worried that they haven’t read a book in ages, or can’t find the time to devote to it, yet they continue to stack up paperbacks on their bulging bookshelves or add ebooks to their Kindle wishlist. Just to add to the guilt.
The same people are often plagued by the books they’ve never read – usually the ‘classics’ – and then they start Ulysses and can’t get beyond ten pages. That then stops them reading anything else because they feel they ‘must’ finish Ulysses before being ‘allowed’ to read something ‘trashy’. (Define trashy, I say).
The two female friends I spoke to seemed very worried about online distractions, their gnat-like attention spans and the growing pile of books in the corner. One of them had even worked out how many books she’d read if they only read one per year for the rest of her life, and was already anxious that it wasn’t nearly enough. What is enough?
The percentages on Kindle help some people tick off their reading in a satisfying way – for me and other people it’s about seeing the chunk of pages we’ve read and marking how far we have to go with a bookmark or, dare I say it, a folded corner. But this implies that we think of reading as a chore, or an achievement, rather than simply a pleasurable experience. Why is that? Why do we think we must read, as opposed to just doing it? And why do we think we must read Ulysses before we can read mass-market fiction?
I think we know that our inner lives are enriched by the experience of reading a book, and our horizons broadened. We know that it enriches our vocabulary and makes us see the world in other ways. It is the process of inhabiting another human brain for days, and coming out enlightened. It is harder work than watching TV – we have to fully engage with the world we are presented with and it inhabits us as we inhabit it. If we read something we think is ‘trash’ we enjoy it, but know it’s not quite doing the same job.
We know we’re in the middle of an epidemic because everyone has started referring to the time it takes to read something. First came the ‘short read’ and the ‘long read’ – I’m still a little unclear on what the timings are on those – and now we’re into an era of timed reading.
Lauren Laverne’s new initiative, The Pool, has organised its features into timed-reading slots for ‘women who are too busy to browse’ (should that be ‘too busy to read?’). Similarly, curated feed site Medium displays a read-time for every post. (I assume these are based on an average reading speed – some people I know are fast skimmers, others take much longer).
If the idea here is to gravitate from a one-minute read to a 12-minute read – which I do regularly on those sites – then I wonder if our ‘gateway’ back to more contented reading lives is via something we’ll enjoy and read quickly, rather than a Tolstoy epic. That’s how I got my reading mojo back.
So whether it’s the new novel Grey by E L James or a bit of Brad Meltzer, we could start by opening up our poor short-circuiting brains and giving them a break from Ulysses. Put all the lists of what we should read that we are bombarded with to one side and start with what we actually want to read.
I’m interested to hear about other people’s reading anxieties, why you think we have them and what you’re doing to combat if you think we should.