Books as antidote to short attention spans

January 22, 2016 at 12:23 pm 5 comments

Today in the New York Times, Timothy Egan wrote a piece bemoaning the increasingly short attention span of us modern humans. In his article, he went on to boast that he had “found a pair of antidotes, very old school, for [our] shrinking attention span[s].” One was gardening. The other was reading.

He wrote,

The second [antidote] is deep reading, especially in the hibernation months of winter…Remember all those predictions that technology was going to kill book reading? It never happened. Paper books and stores that sell them are experiencing a revival of sorts. So, yes, I’m as screen-scrolly as the next guy when I’ve got the world in the palm of my hand. But put the thing aside, and…curl up with an 800-page tome, and you find that the desire for sustained concentration is not lost. If anything, it’s greater.

Of course, my bibliophilic heart swelled in pleasure at his conclusion. Reading as savior! Saving us from modern distraction and lack of focus! Books as antidotes to contemporary malaise! How wonderful!

Over the last decade or so, the evolving debate about e-readers, the death of books, the fall of bookstores, and how technology is always somehow ruining society has been interesting for me to watch and participate in. Over the course of said debate, I went from a staunch Kindle hater (a dislike based solely on loyalty to physical books back when e-readers and physical books were somehow viewed as an either/or proposition) to a grudging Kindle owner to someone who could appreciate the pros and cons of both e-readers and physical books. Could physical books come with me on a two-month backpacking trip? No. But could my Kindle ever replicate the pleasurable physical experience of a codex? Also no. They’re two different tools and I accordingly use them as such.

Timothy Egan’s piece today made me think about this old debate once more. Egan doesn’t recommend reading of any old kind — Kindle, book, Nook, or otherwise. He recommends reading a physical book. His argument is predicated on paying close attention (“deep reading”) to a big, old fashioned book (“an 800-page tome”). That sort of physically present type of reading will hold your attention and save you from having a shorter attention span than a goldfish, Egan suggests.

This is a fascinating proposition and one which made me think more seriously about what my reading is like when I’m reading a book vs. when I’m reading an e-book. I’ve written before about how much I miss books when I only have access to e-books, but I never really thought about how my reading changes based on how I’m accessing the text.

And, the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Egan: reading that I did on a screen was quick and prone to jumping around and, in general, less focused. When I finished books on my Kindle, they didn’t leave as lasting an impression and I didn’t think about them very much. Reading that I did with a physical book in hand, meanwhile, was more frequently transportive. I was in the book, gone, far away, and deeply immersed. I thought about what I was reading and didn’t skip around.

Of course, there are other factors (like the distraction of travel, which is when I use my Kindle most and would logically allow for less immersive reading in general), but my experience with the two types of reading and Egan’s article made me think a bit more deeply about reading formats and habits. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if reading were such an attention span saver? And, if it is, does it have to be via a physical book?

I’d love to hear about your experiences with e-readers vs. physical books and how using either has changed (or not changed) your reading experience. (And perhaps your attention span!) Chime in below!


Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kate  |  January 22, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I have to disagree with Eagen’s premise. Yeah, sure, the experience of holding a physical book can help with the attention span, probably because it’s more stimulating. The feel of the paper, the heft of the book, the tactility (is that a word?) of turning a page, all capture attention in a million little ways. When I hold a physical book, I’m constantly aware of the size of the text on a page, the type of paper (cheap or thick and textured?), and you’ve even talked about color, as in Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu.

    I would argue that reading on a Kindle requires more concentration on the text, not less. You’re not distracted by the type, the paper, the weight — it’s just the reader and the author’s words, and everything else disappears into the background. You might not be as focused, but that’s probably because there are actually fewer things to focus on. I do find that I have a harder time finding remembered passages in a Kindle book because of the lack of visual cues (where that sentence was on a page, about how big the chunk of pages before it was, etc.).

    I would never argue that reading on a Kindle is more enjoyable, but I really think he’s being a little snobby here. And I think that how people respond to e-readers is deeply personal – for example, I don’t skip around, regardless of whether I’m reading on a Kindle or a physical book. When I do skip around, it’s more frequently in a physical book, turning back to a specific point to refresh my memory.

    • 2. Corey  |  January 22, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      Yes, it’s certainly a very “modern technology is killing humanity” article as far as snobbery goes. And I agree that it’s a very personal thing — gardening, for example, is not a good focus-er for me since I don’t find it interesting. I tend to wander off and do something else, which is the opposite of how he intended gardening to be used.

      And reading is of course very personal, too. I know plenty of people who prefer their e-reader, but I just continually struggle with mine and still don’t particularly enjoy the reading experience on it. I don’t like not being able to flip back to a remembered favorite part and I don’t like how quick, and often ephemeral, it makes my reading experience.

      But does my Kindle have any kind of affect my attention span? I have no idea! And it really becomes a preference thing in the end anyway.

      Sorry I’m not feeling terribly articulate today!

      • 3. Kate  |  February 8, 2016 at 4:50 pm

        There’s nothing wrong with having a preference! If you feel like you just don’t like your e-reader, well, then, you don’t like it! And I agree that physical books have more aesthetic value.

        In reading his essay, I think Eagen might not even be referring to e-readers as lesser. I think his point is more about settling down with a book, just a book, not a book on a tablet or smartphone or another device you can easily use to check Facebook. My Kindle is of the very old-school type, no browser. So for me, the potential for distraction is roughly the same with an e-book as with a normal book. That’s just me, again, but I think his point could still stand with people who use that type of reader.

        He’s also right about gardening. There is nothing more obstinate than a tomato plant being grown in Idaho. They refuse to produce anything until about September, after which it will promptly freeze.

  • 4. Sheryl  |  January 22, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    Interesting proposition, Corey!

    I don’t engage with a text any less if reading on my tablet. In fact, I have never liked an 800-page tome — impossible to hold, you can’t curl up with it, and half of my concentration is on the annoyingness of the book itself and not the text. If I like what I am reading, my engagement/thought process/concentration seems to be the same whether paper or e-reader.

    Because my e-reader is a tablet, I wind up reading on a lot of different apps. Not all are created equal. I find the Kindle app has the best resources in terms of situating your current position in the text as a whole, being able to reread parts (and here I will disagree with you Kate, I’ve always found my engagement higher with a text when I want to reread passages as I am reading the first time through — for example — was the author really conveying something there as I thought — did I miss some crucial plot or characterization clue?, etc.), and the occasional sneak peak ahead.

    Whatever app I am reading on, it is much easier to situate your current position in the text and go back and forth with a physical book. That I truly miss whenever I read on my tablet. I do think it decreases comprehension to some extent. I’d love to take part in a scientific study that looks to explore that!!!

    Till that day — whatever device (book or technology) helps me read more — I’m for it!

    • 5. Kate  |  February 8, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      I think we can all agree — whatever format helps you read more, go for it! :)


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