Losing the ability to read and think deeply

I’m losing my ability to read deeply and understand what I’m reading, and I’m not alone.  

I used to be able to sit with a book for hours at a time, fully immersed. I’d put the book down and still think about what I read, processing it and making connections. This led to a deeper understanding of the material and a longer-term recollection. 

Today, we’re so consumed by digital email, chats, TikTok, social media, short blog posts, video clips, and other forms of consumption that are meant to be short and quick - in and out. The content is designed to keep us engaged.

There must be a connection between today’s method of consumption and the ability to read and think deeply. 

I struggle when I try to read a book with information I want to understand. My mind is jumping around to other things. I can’t focus enough to comprehend what I read. I even read the prior text and don’t recall it. I have to read a paragraph over and over to understand it. 

The book is too difficult to read because it requires more direct attention, the opposite of other material I consume. My mind is no longer wired in a way to provide me the focus I need. 

This is concerning. 

And it doesn’t apply to everything, oddly enough. I often become fully engaged when writing code and building software solutions. It may take a few minutes to get going, but once I do, I can be so completely engrossed in my work that it requires someone shaking my shoulder to get my attention.

Do the books need to be more attractive to grab my attention in the same way as writing code? Is it because I’m creating and not consuming?

Today’s books are written differently. Old books are more dense, with complicated words, paragraphs, and less fluff. Today’s books are more straightforward, full of short stories, and tend to only skim the material’s surface. All of this is to keep the reader engaged. (Wolf, Stoodley, and Stoodley 2018)

Fortunately, if I had the abilities in the past and slowly lost them over time, it could be reversed. Right?

My next steps sound simple enough but will be challenging to execute. Reduce the short, mind-numbing consumption and replace it with more time spent with evergreen material that forces me to slow down and think. This should help rebuild the muscle of deep reading and thinking.

What does this problem mean for my children? How will they solve the world’s problems if they can’t sit with something for over 20 minutes?

Wolf, Maryanne, Catherine J. Stoodley, and Catherine Stoodley. 2018. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

April 21, 2024
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