Are you forgetting yet? Last week, the Toronto Globe and Mail published an opinion piece by author Michael Harris. The title tells the story: “I Have Forgotten How to Read”. After growing up reading good books and appreciating literary arts, he thought he could unplug from technology and reconnect with a book. Recently, he turned off his phone and sat down to read a book with the goal of finishing just one chapter. But he couldn’t do it and soon turned on a video instead.
I recommend reading Harris’ article (source link below) because it explains how we got here. Harris does a great job synthesizing the research and crystallizing wisdom from various sources. All of it paints an unmistakable picture of our modern world that is not too surprising for anyone who has been paying attention (you have, haven’t you?).
With constant connectivity, our attention spans have shortened and entertainment has evolved to fit. We need shorter cuts, faster hooks, and nonstop action. We expect to be entertained. We resent anything that postpones our fun. There is no question that modern life is rewiring our brains with different expectations.
“The mind is plastic,” Harris concluded, “and I have changed.”
Playlists vs. Hemingway
Let me turn now to my response. First, is it really such a bad thing that few people read Joyce or Tolstoy? We’re told in school that the great books are great books, so we believe that these are the icons of our culture. It’s true. For those who do spend the time and energy it takes to read and appreciate classic literature (not just in school but on your own when it means something more to you), they are works of absolute genius. Many great books have more truth in them about the human condition than you can learn in years’ worth of TV shows.
But high culture has always been for elites. When most people finish secondary school, they flee from those classic works that have been imposed upon them by the educational system. As Michael Harris notes in his article, until the 19th century, education itself was for elites only. Even when a larger set of the population is forced to read Hemingway in school, most don’t choose to do so on their own time.
If people are retreating to their playlists rather than to Hemingway, it may not represent as big of a loss as some would have us believe. Most people do not spend their downtime reading classic literature. When you see some new dresses at an haute couture fashion show, are those dresses that normal women wear?
No. They are trendsetters, developed by the most creative people in fashion. They help shape our culture in some way. And yet most people don’t wear these icons. Lots of writers have copied Hemingway also, and his works remain extremely influential in the literary world, but that doesn’t mean normal people ever spent much time reading them.
We’re adapting to new realities that are dominated by technology. That’s a big part of life now. And evolving to fit it isn’t all bad, though some of the effects are harmful.
Second, I think what we’re really losing is patience and the ability for deep thought. That’s the part that bothers me. With all of the competing entertainment and nonstop connectivity, we don’t have the time to sit back and think. Our minds need some downtime to recharge, but whereas famous inventors of the past have had bright ideas while sitting on the toilet, now people are using their iPhones while using the bathroom.
Losing that downtime has a tremendous impact on our decision-making. It’s especially worrisome when we accept less and make choices based upon surface-level information just because we lack the patience for deeper understanding. We’re trading the ability to think critically and instead criticizing anything that delays our next screen fix.
So overall, I think the picture is not all bad, but I want to save my brain from complete ruin. Balance is important. How about trying to find a middle ground and re-connecting at some level with the parts of our brains that are being lost?
Some Tips to Find a Middle Ground
Many people are concerned with physical fitness and health, so that should extend to keeping your brain healthy also. While I’m no expert in that respect, I have tried hard in the last few years to maintain my sanity. Even if I spend most of my day looking at a screen, I have tried hard to keep my brain from being wired to it.
In doing so, I’ve collected a few tips to share. I hope you’ll find some of them useful also.
1.) Take breaks
Research has shown that we’re much more productive and creative when we take breaks. Looking at a screen for long periods definitely is not good for your eyes; look away and focus on something in the distance to re-train your eyes. Have a snack, read a magazine, meditate, do some push-ups. Your connected life will still be there in a few minutes.
2.) Get a little exercise (while not looking at your phone or any screen)
My dog forces me to go outside a few times a day and go for walks. I do not look at my phone. Instead, I look at the trees, what’s happening in my neighborhood, and try to see the world from my dog’s perspective. Whatever modest amount of exercise you can fit into your life, from climbing a staircase to climbing on an exercise machine (even for just a few minutes), exercise is good for the brain.
3.) Try reading a magazine or an e-book to replace one of the games you play or the shows you watch
One magazine article does not take that much time to read. E-books are books with a screen, so they may provide some comfort level there.
4.) Try reading poetry
It doesn’t take long to read a poem. Yet it can have as much meaning as a full-length book. Look at some different poets’ works or buy an anthology of poetry. Try to read a new poem each time you take a break. Either you’ll connect with it or you won’t. If you do, it might be a gateway drug to more reading.
5.) Find something snappy to read
We’ve become accustomed to fast hooks, so give your mind what it wants. Not long ago, I decided that I wanted to read the works of Homer (as a free-thinking adult, not as a high school kid), but they intimidated me.
Since I couldn’t simply sit down and read the Iliad, I found some historical novels set in that time and place. The stories hooked me and drew me in, teaching me something of the history and culture in the process. When I was done with the snappy novels, I picked up the actual Iliad and found it fascinating.
If one of your favorite movies was made from a book, go grab the book and try reading it. I like to read the book first, but some people really enjoy reading the book after seeing the movie. That may provide you with a subject you enjoy reading about, and from there, perhaps you can follow that author or look for other similar works.
Hopefully, these tips will help you if you’re reaching that point where you’ve forgotten how to read. Or consider performing a deeper cleansing intervention by unplugging for a whole day and going on a long hike or something. Another option is to read the posts on Steemit before voting for them. I know you’re reading this one all the way to the end. How do I know? Because if you did read it all, then I hope you’ll reply with a comment telling me which tip you liked best. Or (even better) tell us in a comment what tips you have for occasionally unplugging and reconnecting!
Michael Harris' Globe and Mail article: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/i-have-forgotten-how-toread/article37921379/
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