Back to the Book

by • January 1, 2015 • 2015, Big Kids, Education & Learning, Home Life, January 2015, Technology, Teens and Pre-Teens

Is Your Household in Need of a Slow Reading Revolution?

When I was a kid, and a teenager, and a young mom, books were my entertainers and my stress reducers. There was literally no activity that eclipsed that of reading. I would do it for hours, tucking towels at the foot of my bedroom door so my parents couldn’t see the light slip from my room at two in the morning; holing under the blankets so I wouldn’t disturb my husband; and eventually staying in the bathroom where the kids couldn’t get to me. (Not easily, anyway.)

But at some point there was always something more pressing to be doing, and in my work and in the world around me the flow of information rapidly whittled down to short, choppy half-thoughts and sensational headlines. As a professional, I have to fit more and more action into less and less words; and if someone else expects to keep my attention, they better get to the point in 140 characters or less.

My children have grown up reading novels that are 96% action, 3% snark and 1% meaning. I know because I have read and guiltily enjoyed many of them (I’m looking at you, Percy Jackson); but they can hardly be called good literature.

So recently I began harping on my teenagers to get into Dickens. Now, there was a master. If they just read some Dickens, their brains would stretch with new focus and their vocabulary would by necessity expand threefold – as would their appreciation for the wholeness of their family and the warmth of their little hands and feet. So much did I talk about Dickens that I began to think that I would like to revisit him myself.

So I took a copy of A Tale of Two Cities from my daughter’s shelf, where it had been sitting undisturbed for many months, cozied up in bed very happily (and perhaps a bit smugly) with it… and proceeded to struggle for an hour trying to get through the first two chapters before dozing off with visions of Candy Crush playing behind my eyelids.

Over the next couple of weeks I think I made it through one more chapter. I am no longer trying to pretend I am currently reading it. Or anything.

What has happened to me? Where has my capacity for long thought and concentration gone? And is this what it’s like for my poor kids?

It turns out I’m not alone. A 2014 survey showed that reading habits are on the decline. In 2011 about 79% Americans adults reported they had read at least one book in the previous year; in 2014 it was down to 76%.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted the slow reading movement. Basically, people are getting together to read without distraction. Not to talk about a book, a la a book club, but to just go somewhere cozy at the same time, turn their devices off at the same time, and read their individual books silently at the same time. It’s a response to what people like me are seeing happening to their own minds: a weakening.

It turns out that my life in front of glowing rectangles may have actually degraded my ability to read and comprehend. That WSJ article points to studies that have shown that our reading patterns have been altered by screens; whereas they used to be linear (left to right), they are now far more skippy and skimmy as we search all over for words we care about. A few years ago a study showed that presentations mixing words, sounds and moving images meant lower comprehension as compared to reading plain text. Additionally, many studies have shown that reading text spotted with hyperlinks results in weaker comprehension in comparison to reading plain text.

Learning this is enough to, first, forgive myself, and second, inspire a change in my own habits. But what about the kids? Online reading and constant digital distraction hasn’t been a gradual change for them; this is the world as they know it.

Advocates and scientists alike recommend a few strategies for making linear reading a part of daily life:

Disconnect. Turn of the devices and put them away.
Schedule it. Make it a point in your day and the kids’ day, like exercising and homework.
Set aside enough time. Blocks of at least 30-45 minutes provide the necessary time to fall into meaningful concentration.
Get cozy. Make the event of slow, linear reading an enjoyable one. If that involves a blanket and some tea, or a cool breeze and some lemonade, so be it.
Consider real books. Some say if you have an actual book, you will see it around and it will remind you to read.
Airplane mode it. If you are going to read on your phone, switch that thing over to airplane mode. See point #1.
Start a family club. Start a reading club in the house, where you all quietly read your own books, but at the same time, in the same place. M

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