Are things really this bad? I’ve got no reason to disbelieve Hugh McGuire, author of this Medium piece, but I’m thinking his problem isn’t really a failure to be able to concentrate, but just being too busy: multi-tasking himself into an inability to stick with something as long as a book — because he’s got too many other things needing doing. At different times of your life you will have more or less time available for reading. For instance, when you have a young family most of your time is taken up with child care, which can be called for in the middle of the darkest and stormiest night. Fewer books get read. Your brain doesn’t atrophy, and your basic ability to read Middlemarch doesn’t waste away. You are just doing other things. When you do get the time again, you’ll be just as capable of sustained reading as you were before. The real problem is allowing yourself to get into the habit of just sitting there staring at television (remember how a few years ago that was the problem) or deciding to spend all your life on Facebook. But these are decisions: not effects of brain evolution.

Attacking from another flank Nikkitha Bakshani at The Morning News tells us of binge reading disorder. (Link via Ink, Bits, & Pixels.) I remain skeptical about all this digital brain change stuff. Different types of reading will call (always have called) for different techniques. If you are reading a newspaper, an advertisement, an e-mail, you are likely to be going a bit faster than when you read a poem by Emily Dickinson. So? Does the fact that there’s now so much more ephemera on the Internet while Emily Dickinson’s corpus has increased only infinitesimally, mean that reading has changed? Of course not: when you read the poem you still read it with the attention you always gave it — and I’m quite willing to agree that there are and always were lots of people who wouldn’t, couldn’t read a Dickinson poem in the most thorough way. But that effect has absolutely nothing (well nothing directly causative) to do with whether they spend hours on Twitter and Facebook. Don’t reach for a physiological excuse. Your brain hasn’t changed: your willingness to put in the effort has.

And maybe that’s just fine too. There’s no God-given law saying you have to read books. If you want to do it you will. If you don’t have time for it: you don’t. Feelings of guilt will not help you find the time. But despair not: when you decide to do it your brain will still be quite capable of the effort required.

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