More thoughts on forgetting how to read

So as I mentioned yesterday, this article really made me think about my own disjointed approach to reading. Or rather, as Harris puts it, cynical reading.

When we become cynical readers – when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention.

Exercising our attention is just that – exercise. I’m an impatient person – and while I’ve always worn that label with slight pride, it comes at a hefty price. I actually wonder if my impatience sometimes is what leads me to emotional lows? And if that’s true, does my active internet usage only exacerbate those symptoms?

Here’s another quote from Harris’ article, quoting Eric Schmidt (previous CEO of Google):

“I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information … is in fact affecting cognition. It is affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.”

Thinking deeply is an interesting concept. I always relate it to being an emo teenager who hangs out at cemeteries, but just because you think about death a lot doesn’t make you deep.

I think that deep thinking takes time. It takes an acknowledgment of your own biases and understanding where they come from – not just that they exist.

For example, I prefer happy stories over sad stories. At face value, that’s a bias that most people understand, but my husband loves sad stories. So why do I hate sad stories?

Well, let’s see. Sad stories make me think about a lot of things: suffering going on in the world, the fact that people really do have lives like this, and I especially loathe stories where people destroy their own lives because I want to believe that there is eventually a happy ending.

This stems from many different things:

  1. I have struggled with anxiety and depression ever since I was a teenager and sad stories only make me feel worse
  2. The sad stories make me feel worse because they are typically about people who have either been brutalized in horrific ways (e.g. the Holocaust) and they have it way worse and how DARE I be sad and anxious and what if it happened to me
  3. Or these sad stories are about people who destroy their own lives and I really hate reading those because I need to feel hopeful about people (and myself) being able to overcome challenges, not be my own downfall
  4. These stories typically never leave my head, due to a habit of internalizing them ever since I was seven and I had first learned about the Holocaust

So there you go – a simple bias of preferring to read happy stories, and after a little digging, we see where that bias has come from. I have a greater tolerance for tragic stories now, but it’s taken a long time to get to that point.

I also tend to disagree with Schmidt a little – while reading is a fantastic way to really learn something, there are many different ways to get in-depth into a subject. I have to do it in multiple ways: reading, discussion, writing and reasoning it out, and trying to apply it to real life. And this all takes time and even understanding what I’ve read at all.

Even though I disagree with Schmidt on that one point, I still think he’s right. I think I’m far too guilty of participating in cynical reading, and I think that it doesn’t help me emotionally. Reading can be therapeutic, whether it’s “useful” or not – and I need to keep exercising my attention in every kind of book.

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