Monday, December 15, 2014

Slow reading

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one's ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-made meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition.
Susan Hill, Howard's End is on the Landing

I am not so sure the internet deserves all the blame for what Susan Hill so aptly calls "mental malnutrition." It seems to me there are plenty of other distractions that make it difficult for us to focus our attention on just one thing: ringing telephones, interruptions by children or spouses or others, other pressing tasks that require our attention, the siren call of our television sets, even computer solitaire. Long before the internet, newspapers and magazines were breaking down information into small pieces.

For many years I wrote in a noisy newsroom, where ringing phones and loud conversations constantly made it challenging to stay focused on one's subject. With a deadline pressing, one simply has to train one's mind to focus. Years later when the number of newsroom personnel had shrunk dramatically, I found the unnatural quiet just as distracting as the noise had once been.

When it comes to reading books, which is the subject at hand in Hill's book, I suspect most of the blame for my own short attention span is my practice of reading several books at one time. I may read but one chapter, or even just a couple of pages in one book before putting it down and picking up another, then doing the same thing with it. There are some books, Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing being one of them, where this kind of reading may be acceptable, even advisable, but most books, whether fiction or nonfiction, deserve longer periods of focus.

Hill writes that by rationing the internet she was able, within a few days, to increase her attention span and tackle difficult long books. "It was like diving into a deep, cool ocean after flitting about in the shallows, Slow Reading as against Gobbling-up," she writes.

It comes down to disciplining ourselves, sort of like learning to write news stories, columns and editorials amid the bustle of a lively newsroom.

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