My Ruined Reading Experience

"Book" by Eddi 7 on Flickr

I’m an English major. It’s a big part of my identity, like being a mother, a writer, or an academic. I decided on English because I liked reading. Simple as that.  Back then, when I was in high school, we didn’t have fancy skills exams to help us figure out what career we wanted. We had an average guidance counselor who, honestly, had no clue what to do with me, the girl who walked into the office asking about the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, and who wanted to study literature. It was a small town with a small high school far away from the metropolis of San Juan. Creative writing programs were non-existent to me, and what I knew about my #1 pick I found out on my own. Heck, I only had two choices. Nowadays, having only two options for college is career suicide.

But back to my original point: I liked reading books, and that’s one of the major reasons I became an English major. I wanted to share that with people. I also wanted to study how authors wrote good books. Where best to do that than in English? Although some may question the validity of using these parameters for picking a career, it worked for me. It has led me toward where I am today: a PhD candidate with over six years of experience in academia (teaching and otherwise) at two different institutions. I have read plenty of books in my 12 years in college, and even though some of them may have been dull (and some of them I simply skimmed because I couldn’t be bothered with them) I am proud to say I have the chance to read and write for a living.

Here’s the problem: on a regular basis I don’t read as much as you think I do. In fact, I really don’t read many books nowadays.

First things first: my dissertation takes up a big chunk of my time. I am working with books I have already read. I also read a lot of journal articles (can I have a Goodreads account for that? Because I’m sure I’d be top-ranking in that department) for my dissertation. The literary criticism that comes in book form is too heavy–for me, at least–to consume all at once, so I usually read a chapter or two or three and move on to my next piece. For a long period of time, I didn’t read outside of my assigned readings. My research is time-consuming, and when I’m done I sometimes don’t have the energy to read more. That’s the “beauty” of academic research: it seems like you carry it with you EVERYWHERE.

Example: Someone once had the audacity to tell me they were disappointed I didn’t read more. My response? “Did my advisor hire you?”

Earlier this year I decided to fix that. I was so frustrated at not being able to read for fun (the reason I became an English major in the first place) and being consumed by my dissertation day after day after day, that I decided to make time for reading. I schedule time for reading (although sometimes I am guilty of not honoring my schedule). I keep a book by my side of the bed. I bought a Kindle. Even though my list of books to read is growing by the week–my goodreads list doesn’t even make a dent in the ever-growing mental list–I am slowly making progress.

Sidenote: I know some people who think e-readers are evil, lazy, expensive, and the dagger in the heart of the print publishing industry. I felt very guilty for even thinking about buying one. (Ah, grad student guilt, you never go away, do you?) But the truth is, it has helped me minimize the clutter of articles that surrounds me every time I work on an article/chapter/paper. I’ve also started taking my Kindle when I go to the park with my daughter. While I push her stroller around the park, I’ve been able to get some reading done, which makes me happy. I don’t believe I will single-handedly kill paper books. After all, I still buy them and love to collect them. But like … said, books can still exist as collectors items. And hey! Some of them are cheap too. So if you want to tell me how awful I am for buying a Kindle, move on.

Here’s what’s bugging me though: I don’t have the attention span to sit down and read long pieces for an extended period of time. If I am making progress, it’s at the pace of a snail. What is wrong with me? If it’s not my smartphone, it’s the tv, or it’s something that I forgot in the kitchen. I am so used to multitasking that I cannot sit down to read for ten whole minutes. When I’m reading in the park, I’m reading AND pushing a stroller. That time when I could lose myself in a magazine or in a novel for an hour or two has long gone. Zip. Bye bye, ship. And I miss that time.

Case in point: last week, José Antonio Vargas’s article about being a successful journalist while still being an undocumented immigrant made the rounds on my timeline. But even though it’s sitting in my browser with several other articles, I can’t bring myself to sit down and read it. I can’t because it’s six pages long, and I will give up after maybe the first page. (Reading lengthy pieces on my laptop is also irritating to me).  Even though the first few paragraphs caught my attention, I quickly move on to another page.

Another example: for the past few months Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark has been sitting on my night stand. I have started it twice. I have gotten no farther than page 50. In the meantime I have read two books on my Kindle. Muñoz is a favorite author of mine, and I was looking forward to reading his novel. But I can’t do more than a few pages at a time.

I wonder what is wrong with me. Am I so addicted to my smartphone that I can’t stand reading something bigger for more than five minutes? Has Twitter messed up my ability to focus on one thing for more than 140 characters? Do I need a time out from being a mommy so I can reboot my brain? (Being at home with my daughter this past month and a half has really developed my multitasking skills). Should I cut out one of my academic projects so that I can have a moment to read? I don’t know. But I sure would like to be able to lose myself in a story, article, or book for more than five minutes.

How do you folks do it?

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  1. It’s taking me days, DAYS to read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Seventh-graders read faster than I do.

    • Dude, I completely understand. I’m jealous of people who can read more than 5 pages at a time. I really am. But I can spend an hour going from page to page on my laptop. What’s up with that?

  2. Totally understand. Your piece reminded me of this:

    I have become such an awful reader. I’ve never been a fast reader, but lately books just seem to pile up and I never seem to get the chance to finish any. I think my attention span has been ruined by my gadgets.

    This past weekend I decided I will try to disconnect from the constant flow of instant gratification that is the internet, and take a break from the laptop, the phone and the tablet. I haven’t decided on a date yet, but it could be soon, maybe even this week.

    Maybe I’ll write about it afterwards.

  3. Lee Skallerup Bessette says:

    I honestly blame grad school. Ten years ago when I started my PhD (pre-Twitter, pre-facebook), I started to have the same problems. I think it’s in part because your brain is trying to shut off/rest. Does SM make it “worse”? Probably. I don’t think we should feel guilty because we can’t/won’t read something that doesn’t hold your attention.

    Maybe instead of blaming SM, we should look at the quality of what is produced. I never have any trouble getting through a piece by, say, Christopher Hitchens, no matter how long it is.

  4. As a fellow Ph.D. candidate, I totally relate to this. Over the past year, I have made a point of reading for fun again because I found I had started to actually hate books! Crazy, right? It’s hard to enjoy reading when it’s always associated with work and productivity though.

    As for attention span, I have similar problems, but I’m not sure it’s something gone wrong with my brain. Sure, before digital media was so prolific, I could read all day without my mind wandering; but that was also before I had any major responsibilities in life as well. Last reading break, I didn’t have any teaching prep to worry about, or marking, and had decided not to work on my dissertation. I read 3 novels that week, proving that I can still pay attention if I have the time. When I don’t really have time to turn everything off, I choose to read short novels so I don’t have to take hours out of every day to get really into them.

    And a final point: I used to put a lot of pressure on myself for leisure reading, like I should use my spare time to catch up on all those classics I’d never read. Turns out that wasn’t always very fun either, it was just more work. If that’s an issue, give yourself permission to read trash every now and again.

  5. I felt the same way when I was working on my Master’s. The summer after writing my thesis, I read nothing but Ian Ranking mysteries. I needed something non-academic but with a great story, and I found it. I just couldn’t do it any longer.

    In part, that’s why I started my blog – to write again and to love to read again. I hope you find a good balance, but ignore those people who bug you about it. You’re working toward something amazing. Do whatever you have to do for yourself to make it through.

  6. My dream job is to be a published author, where all I do is sit around and read and work out the kinks in my latest best-seller. In reality, I am working on a my masters (a personal goal and an attempt to get me past the crappy jobs I’ve managed to land thus far). I also love to read, have since I was in kindergarten. ( Always got in trouble for rushing through classwork-always finished and correct BTW-so that I could read). As I am typing this, I have 9 library books on my table next to me and 16 books from my personal collection that I am working on getting through. On top of that, I am currently reading 2 books for companies that I’m a reviewer for. Oh yeah, I do have a full time job that is currently sucking the life out of me. There are days where I can read for an hour (yep homework doesn’t get done that day) and days where I can only read a paragraph out of one book. I take it wherever I can get it, and enjoy it. Even with the books that I review for the companies, I find that I am very particular about what I read and spend time on. Though the last book I reviewed took me three months to finish, I have vowed to not waste time on those that don’t grab my attention in the first 20 pages. Why? If it grabs my attention then I know that I will come back to it when I have the time for it, and if it doesn’t then I am wasting time that has now become a precious commodity.

  7. As you and others have mentioned, I feel that grad school (MA/PhD work) and the internet almost have ruined my ability to read literary novels that I’m not writing about for academic purposes (i.e., my dissertation, a conference paper, a journal article). I started blogging in the hopes of being able to write about “fun” books — any novel to which I didn’t have a professional obligation. Three months later, I’ve barely written anything about such books on my blog!

    On a more positive note, while it’s hard for me to find time to read “good” novels for pleasure, I’ve developed a long form journalism habit. (Love @longreads!) I also seem to more easily read what I call “beach” books. I had great success with Harry Potter — read the entire series from May to September. Now, I’m getting into the Sookie Stackhouse novels, although slowly. Baby steps?

  8. This article sums our plight. The only problem is that it’s longer than five pages.

  9. I read every night before I go to sleep. Literally, every night. Nothing work-related–murder mysteries, chick lit, and other misc novels. Like you, I went through an extended phase in grad school where I couldn’t read for fun, but at some point, I realized two things: 1) I missed reading for pleasure, and 2) reading helped me to sleep better (as long as I was not reading on a backlit screen–kindle is fine, iPad is not). Sometimes, I read for 5 minutes, sometimes an hour, but usually it’s somewhere around 20-30 minutes. It’s not about how fast I read or how long the book takes–it’s just for me.

  10. This is my constant struggle, finding time is SO effin’ hard! Earlier in my PhD career, I was constantly anxious about not reading enough. Whenever I sat down to read, I’d think, “Am I supposed to be reading this? Shouldn’t I be reading something else that’s better/smarter/more related to my topic?” And then I’d spend hours in the database rink, going in circles until I forgot what I was reading before. Then I’d start reading something from that go-round of research and the whole cycle would start again. The internet is distracting. My phone is distracting. Life is distracting. But that’s where I am.Those days of yore when I could sit in a green field and read under a tree like a hobbit are over (and I’m not sure they ever really existed — stupid nostalgia). Now I read when I can: in the bathroom, at the playground, when the Noodle is sleeping, early in the morning in bed before she wakes up, late at night before bed, and the evening between dinner and bedtime when all I want to do is watch re-runs of Mad Men. And to quiet those distracting voices, I use a timer. When I have the urge to get up from reading to check my phone/tweetdeck/G+/etc. I tell myself, “read for just 7 more minutes and then you can get up.” After 7 minutes passes, I’ve mostly calmed down enough to be still with the reading. Mostly.


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