As I brush my teeth, while I eat my cereal, on the train, as I walk down the street, before I turn the light out — one of my chief pleasures has always been burying my nose in a book a few times a day.
I just spent a few days on the beach with my pal Tommy Kane, parked side-by-side in deck chairs, drawing and reading and napping. I read a handful of books, dipping back and forth, as I often seem to do these days.
The hard part was really losing myself in a book. It wasn’t a matter of being distracted by people in thongs wandering by or the caws of seagulls. It was my brain —which increasingly finds it harder to stay connected with long passages, especially ones that aren’t moving the plot ahead but are lyrical or descriptive and celebrate the joy of language.
I don’t have ADHD. I have an iPhone.
These days I seem to read all day long. Emails, texts, blog posts, news, it’s just an endless stream of words. Every type of communication is written. I never speak on the phone anymore, I just type on the keyboard and read responses.
And all these words demand that I read them differently than I did Chaucer or Proust or Tom Wolfe. I skim, I scan, I browse for the gist. I exercise my eyeballs and flitter my fingertips. There is so much to wade through, I have to retrain my brain to suck down words like an endless skein of overcooked pasta.
This is called a pull quote.
It’s here to attract your attention and make you want to read my post. Hope it works!
And as a writer, I have to adapt to this pell-mell, distracted world. Instead of long, meandering blog posts, I should be writing listicles and giving people ten actionable tips they can tweet and share. My paragraphs should never be more than three active sentences. My titles should be pithy yet info-packed. I should avoid arcane references and worry about search engine optimization. And what is all this doing to my brain? Will I ever again be able to sink into a long novel like a warm bath and bask until my fingers pucker? Oy.
I recently heard a neurologist say that keeping up with all these Facebook posts and tweets is rewiring our brains so we struggle to delve deep when we read, and that we are in danger of losing the rich beauty and dense wisdom of great literature. And we stand in danger of becoming superficial thinkers, trite and incapable of going beyond the obvious, ping-ponging between stimuli, unsatisfiable.
Whatevs. I’m going in for a dip.
24 thoughts on “Can’t get into it.”
Just back from a painting trip to beautiful Colorado, I decided I wanted to learn more about the state. So I’ve settled into a paperback mega novel from the past, “Centennial” by James Michener. The place setting starts with geological descriptions of an area near the South Platte River. When a novel starts with magma flows and thrust faults you know it’s going to be a long read. But in a strange nerdy way, I’m really enjoying it. I like to read books with the Kindle app on my ipad but it’s just too easy to swipe pages to move things along. Reading this book is like a nightly meet up with a storytelling friend. Geology rocks. So does Michener.
Doodling is a way to stay focused on listening but would it work for reading? Probably turn out some very impressionistic and expressive doodles. Maybe this could be a good thing.
This is why I belong to a book club. We dip into a wide variety of literature and enjoy each other’s company, face-to-face.
I have yet been able to “get into” a book this summer. Very frustrating,so thank you for this post,Danny.It helps me feel I’m not hopeless and just have to push ahead.
Take a technology break and delve into something by a writer you love. You’ll be back in the enchanted forest of long stories and beautiful prose in no time.
The temptation to get as much information is hard to resist. I think that for a person like yourself Danny, remembering what got you to this place is important. You found your way through unbearable life events and turned it all into a process that helps a ton of others deal with life. Please remember that. Thanks for the post.
Good thoughts. I used to be a voracious reader. I noticed that I had ceased to read books entirely of late (for a good long time, years)! Recently, I have read two books and am half way through a third book, in a row. They each were books that drew me in: Orange is the New Black (about a woman in prison, true story); Wild (a young woman overcoming the grief of the loss of her mother by walking the Pacific Crest Trail alone! Riveting, true story! And the third is The Boys On the Boat, about a group of young men crewing a boat in the state of Washington and later in the Olympics in 1936 against Hitler’s crew in WWII Germany! Also riveting and a true story. Somehow I am able to read these books because they are exciting, thrilling really, and emotional too. I’m excited that I seem to be able to read again, AND continue to draw as well. I think maybe I was afraid I’d stop drawing if I got back into reading, but it’s not happening! Yippee!
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At least Tommy did not drawyou .His sketches on the beach were great but far from flattering so you may have buried him in the send if he had drawn you. It would have seemed appropriate for NJ.
Sorry but after my brush or more like drowning in poison ivy that is now in my system happily now battling it out with prednisone, my mind is warped by days of ITCH.
Danny, that are good thoughts. – I used to read large novels all the time with no interruption, before I went “online”. Meanwhile I use to read several books at the same time. I “switch” between books, instead of to start with the new book not before I finished reading the other book… Meanwhile it’s a little bit better since I use to “filter” my online-interests very strictly. It’s no need for me to read or (to know?) all! – For example only a few “blogs” are left over, which are of my interest regulary: “Danny’s blog” is one of them! Keep it up! 🙂
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Pardon d’écrire en français mais en anglais j’aurais peur d’écrire des contresens…Je suis une grande lectrice et avant de mettre en pratique “drawing before breakfast” je lisais tous les matins très tôt, au moins une heure. J’ai rempli deux carnets d’aquarelle mais je n’ai plus lu…j’étais donc “en manque” et les livres que je voulais lire s’accumulaient. Aujourd’hui, je relis, je médite aussi tôt le matin mais je ne peins plus… je suis donc “en manque”…. Merci Danny pour tous ces blogs sincères. Amitiés du Périgord
Now there’s a thought. I have not delved into a novel in awhile. Get back to you . I’m going to get a novel to read.
I am an American living in The Netherlands. I love to read, write and talk.
I belong to a English literature club. These women want to read literature in the English language and talk about it in English. What do I do at the meeting? I take notes and rewrite it on the pc and push send. I am proud to hold a book in my hand, talk and type about it!!,
Very interesting thoughts! The pull quote definitely worked for me! As for the rewiring of the brain I think it’s very possible that superficility is the way of the future, unfortunately so!
Danny, you really hit home on this one. My mind is too active at my age. I am into my seventh decade and going strong but at a price. At the end of the day I wish I had more time. More time to not only read but to sketch, make art, socialize, exercise, and of course surf the cursed web. So I have made it a rule to spend less time on my iPad. About an hour in the morning and evening. This seems to be working. I am able to sit and read a good book and concentrate on only that book for about an hour or so until I start to lose focus. I use to have three books going at once. I don’t do that anymore. Doing that is too confusing and more of a waste of time. As Twain said in one of his essays ” Is Shakespeare Dead?” – ” too much interlarding”.
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Interesting thoughts. I suffer from a similar growing distractibility. I have always been doing a dozen things at once, but now the long term things like reading a book are harder to do. As a kid, I always had my nose in a book, and love reading. Now, I envy friends who are always talking about a book they read. I have a hard time getting through one. The last five years with my heightened use of smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, etc. seems to be part of the culprit (a few adverse life events notwithstanding). Part of it is the garden path the internet leads you down-one comment with a link leads you to another link and another, etc. I do read, I just read blogs and news stories. The other thought is that for some people (like me), the constant access to email and Facebook and news is that we are always on call to “pay attention”-to what is going on with everyone and everything else. Reading is a pretty solitary occupation where you aren’t paying attention to anything but the book and your brain. I don’t want to turn into a skimmer, a little insect skating across the top of the water in every direction. I want to be a whale, diving to the depths and drinking in a sea of words. Incidentally, drawing helps with distractibility, but suffers from it is well. How odd that my two favorite activities are so hard to get at. Must. Turn. Off. Devices.
Ah, I thought it was just me. I haven’t finished a book in what seems like ages! Though I like my Kindle App and I have plenty of books waiting, I seem to be too distracted. I must give more time to good books, less time to FaceBook, Pinterest, Emails… I’ll try reading a paperback with my iPad & iPhone in another room.
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We know we’re missing something when we have trouble moving ourselves into the proper state to bask . . . I feel sad for those who don’t know they’re missing something. It’s a constant battle to restrict our daughter’s “screen time” but this is one of the reasons why it’s critical — to allow her to become the kind of reader who will read a book for hours, willingly and joyfully. Long live single-tasking and immersive books.
Hi Danny ! I really do hope you never change your writing to accommodate a very overstimulated society! The need to be connected 24/7 has unfortunately deprived us of a much need down time to rest your mind to take a deep breath and smell the roses or to read a book . But it is nothing more then to make choices…
[Tried to post from my phone last night when I saw this come in. No comments at that point 🙂 WP is funky on phones with some sites. Anyway . . .]
I happened to be reading when your post ping came in. I read a lot. Daily. Fiction. Non fiction. Poetry.
I don’t have a TV; that helps.
I am easily distracted by the Internet though. So, this summer I cut back my social media interaction even more than previous cuts. It’s hard to be online, keeping up and also be creative. For me at least. The time and energy and reserves get used up and the brain gets zapped. When I am not online so much my head is way more relaxed, I think differently and more creatively.
Clearly I am still following you though 🙂
P.S. I bet Oliver Sacks has some interesting things to say about what you said – in one of his books.
Yup, yup and yup.
I’d best be succinct then: touché!
Well Danny, welcome to the club, I wrote about this very problem in 2010, when I first noted my seemingly sudden inability to concentrate for long periods of time, even as I used to be a champion at doing just that. Last night I went to Hamlet here in London and watching people wince at the mere suggestion to turn their phones off for 3 hours made me really think. What are we becoming? I think that the reality depicted in Wall-e isn’t that far into the future, frankly.
Great essay. Exactly why I don’t have an iphone …yet. I also unplug on a regular basis. Never been a huge TV person…(I prefer to watch and listen to the birds). I rarely turn the TV on and then it is very purposeful. On. Watch. Off when show is over. I can falter here and there with time on the computer…but I am a paper person and I must document ideas, doodles, plans, etc in a journal every day. I also must hold a book (including smelling the pages) to read…no digital books for me…yet. Right now I am reading “It’s All Relative,” by Wade Rouse. I have no trouble losing myself in a book. I agree with Owen that I am remarkably more tuned into my creative genius when I don’t spend too much time on the computer. If I start my day checking emails and FB then I set myself up for a day in reactive mode. Cheers-Darlene
Hey Danny, I thought you might enjoy this podcast that explores how screens are changing our reading habits and behaviors, and maybe how we can retain or retrain ourselves to read like we used to and get lost in a book.
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