Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle….
I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.
I certainly empathize with this struggle to keep engaged with lengthy material. I rarely read anything online in full, unless I plan on quoting it, and I am easily distracted no matter what I’m reading. It’s particularly a problem if I’m sitting near my laptop, in which case I’m constantly fighting the urge to check my email, sitemeter, or favorite blogs. I have use of an office at my church, and when they finally decided to secure their wireless network, I was almost glad not to have the WEP key — I get so much more done there without the temptation to hop online.
But I can’t say that I read any fewer books now than I ever did. Perhaps because I’ve been an Internet addict since at least sixth grade, I tend to automatically switch between different approaches to reading, from scanning, to reading quickly but in full, to slowly digesting with pencil in hand. My ability to concentrate depends greatly upon the nature and context of what I’m reading. Of course, if something is well written, on a subject I care very much about, and/or helpful to answering a question I’m curious about, I’m more likely to finish it, but I have a much easier time reading large blocks of text on paper than on a computer. I really can’t imagine ever reading a full book on my laptop, nor do I think I would remember as much of it if I did so. Even lengthy articles make me antsy when I try to read them online (heck, I didn’t even finish the one quoted above!).
As much as I love the idea of carrying my library around in my computer, I’m beginning to think it would only be helpful as a supplement to “the real thing,” never as its replacement.