In Which I Worry About My Attention Span

I started this blog—ages ago, in internet time—to get my brain working, force myself to react to what I read, and put my thoughts in order. But I’ve never kept it up for very long at a stretch, and longer essays—“longer” in blog terms, anyway—are rare.

I feel like my attention span has atrophied. I’ve noticed I’m not as good a reader as I used to be. Not that I don’t still read quite a lot compared to most people—I finished 83 books last year, more than one a week. And have no problem with reading comprehension. But I read in bits. I’ve always had more than one book going at any given time, but these days I have several, and I rarely sit down with them for sustained periods: I sit through ten or twenty pages and my brain is off on something else.

Mind you, that’s still healthier than the voracious-but-stupid way I read when I was 12 or 13. Often I’d get through a book in a day, but I didn’t retain much. There are books I know I read around that time that left no trace in my memory. I suspect there are others I no longer recall having read at all. These days I remember what I read. But I suspect I’d absorb it even better if I could get back to the middle path I took in my late teens and early twenties: more than a couple of days, less than a couple of weeks.

So when I read this post at Bioephemera, and it led me to this article at The Atlantic Monthly by Nicholas Carr, I felt the slow creep of recognition. Different media encourage different habits of thought, and your habits can change your brain. Some researchers believe we read on the web using different strategies than the ones we use when we read a book. From Carr’s article:

They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site.

In other words, not so much deep reading as grazing on information. Which is not a bad thing in and of itself… unless that’s all you find yourself doing, as with one guy quoted by Carr who claims he’s “almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.”

I have no problem absorbing a long article. The problem is in absorbing it in one piece. It takes effort not to drift off to something else halfway through.

None of this should be taken as condemnation of the internet, which is a great thing and provides a decent home for my comics. As Carr admits, both the printing press and even basic literacy have at some point been denounced as brain-rotters. No, really. Carr cites Plato’s Phaedrus, and here’s the reference:

And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

The problem isn’t that I’m spending too much time reading on the internet. Considering how many books I finish, albeit in bits, it isn’t even that I’m not spending enough time reading books. I’m just not spending enough time reading single books for extended periods of time.

Maybe I need to start going out and reading in coffee shops. I read part of a novel in one today—the only book I’d brought with me—and was surprised and pleased to find I’d made it through eighty pages without losing focus, just the way I used to. Two dollar lattes burden the wallet, but might be a small price to pay to get my attention span back under control.