From Our Readers
July 13, 2015 9:04 am

If you Google “declining attention spans,” according to the Internet, we’re doing worse than goldfish. Eight seconds to their nine. And that was in 2013. On one hand, maybe, whatever it was they showed the poor guy pitted against a goldfish, it just wasn’t his cup of tea. Still, it’s worrisome. As YA bestseller John Green quips on his Twitter profile: “I write books… (Books are like Tweets except longer.)”  But if we now possess the attention span of daft goldfish, how can we pay attention long enough to read those 700 page tweets?

I can actually remember the exact moment I felt my brain shift, when I went from inhaling books like the lit major I was to struggling to pay attention for the length of the news article I was reading. It was 2008. The whole time I longed to click over to emails or fishtail-braiding tutorials. I realized I missed that escape into books, that feeling of being so completely absorbed by a book about Russia that I could feel the cold of a Moscow winter on my cheeks. Most of all, I wanted to actually enjoy, not just say I enjoyed, reading challenging writers.

When I became pregnant in 2012, not only did I have a lot more time on my hands but I’d begun a new career as a writer as well, which requires as much reading as anything else. So I made it my mission to get back into reading books in a serious way. Here’s how I learned to love reading all over again.

Try an off-the-shelf challenge

Through blogging, I met a fantastic network of supportive writers and editors, one of whom introduced me to the concept of the off-the-shelf book challenge. The basic concept is to read as many books on your shelf that you have but haven’t read as you can. Some challenges have you print out a list of the books and mark them off as you go, in a kind of book bingo. Something about this challenge helped me finally crack that pile of lovely volumes, including books like Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Then, to my chagrin, I discovered, McCullers’ superb, flawless prose demanded unfamiliar jumping jacks from my underworked cerebral cortex.

Realized that it’ll take some time to get into it again

My second, scarier, realization was the way the brain and the attention span to work it are akin to muscles. After years of not reading, my poor brain was underworked. It took time to sharpen my brain to the point that I actually enjoyed rereading Anna Karenina (Team Levin forever!). Like writing or running, I discovered that reading requires discipline but also has benefits that may or may not be magical. 

Find a reading buddy, or a way to make books social

The concept is pretty much the same as having a workout partner. It’s harder to skip out on workouts,when you’re skipping out on a friend. In my case, I kept a weekly blog reviewing the challenge books I’d read. Although I doubt more than two people (hi, Mom!) read the posts, it gave me a sense of accountability, inspiring me to meet my challenge goals each week. Plus, it was fun! Goodreads serves a similar function or writing mini-reviews on Instagram. Anything that makes you feel accountable helps you not cheat, even if it’s only not cheating yourself!

You can read in increments

I realized I could easily read if I broke it into sets. Like Kimmy’s ten second rule in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I learned I could do anything for short bursts. Setting yourself small goals, like reading 25 pages per sitting, while resisting the urge to check Facebook or send texts, means you can make it through heavies like Daniel Deronda or Middlemarch. More crucially, it gives your brain a chance to take a break from the endless stream of cute outfit pictures and fun news stories for a half hour. I recommend 15-25 pages. Anything less makes it harder to keep momentum going, and that’s what it’s all about. By plugging through, you’ll find your second wind, experiencing that thrill of being fully in the moment.

Just tackle one book at a time

My work now requires I read for research as well as for pleasure. However, I still keep to the one “fun” book at a time rule, because too many competing voices in the brain make for less fun. Granted, some books hold your attention all the way through while others require a little more uphill hoofing. But concentrating on one book at a time really helps you stick with it. Plus, I find too many competing voices makes for cacophony. By reading one book at a time, I give myself a chance to breathe.

Try to finish the books that you start

My husband drives me crazy by starting but not finishing movies/books. (But on the flip side, when I do see him finishing a book like, I know it’s really good.) Maybe I’m obsessive, but I’ve personally discovered huge payoffs when I force myself to finish a book, even when I’m not totally digging it.

If you didn’t dig a book the first time, sometimes it’s worth a second look

In college, every woman I respected loved Virginia Woolf, but back then, her formlessness gave me headaches. I swooned over Toni Morrison. Flipped for Turgenev. I couldn’t abide Woolf. Later, I became friends with another lover of all things Woolf. I took another crack at Mrs. Dalloway. To my surprise, I was entranced by charmingly, serenely, and sometimes surreally, long sentences. If a book, even if it’s a classic, really, truly isn’t doing it for you, then don’t feel bad about putting it aside until the right moment comes along. You might pick it up again when you least expect it.

Make an effort to find other book-lovers

Most of my IRL friends aren’t that into books. My husband likes to read, but he likes playing music more. One of my best friends is an artist and reads books the way he completes a painting—slowly and with deliberation. We occasionally talk book not books. So, as much as the Internet once fried my brain, I also wouldn’t have those kind of book-loving friends in my life without it. For example, I learned about Elena Ferrante’s My Most Brilliant Year through recommendations on Instagram and about Chang Rae-Lee and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie through Vintage Book Love’s. Their single-minded glee always gets me all excited about reading and discussing books. For real life options, book clubs can be cool either with friends or even strangers.

Again, all these changes took time and work, but they helped turn me back into someone who pays attention to books, and particularly difficult, brain-working books again. And that’s truly been a worthwhile, magical journey.

Isabella David McCaffrey is a writer and poet in the New York area, where she lives with her husband, a classically-trained trumpeter, and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals and children. They play in a jazz-folk duo called The Isabells.  For more on her work (or more of her own mini-book reviews), please check out her website www.IsabellaDavid.com or follow The Isabells’ practice sessions on Insta or Twitter @IsabellaMDavid.
Related:

The 40 books every woman should read
Ladies wrote books that we couldn’t put down in 2014

[Image via iStock]

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