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The Internet Versus Reading: My Short Attention Span

A screenshot from The Sims 3 - one sim on the computer whilst others stand around

I think this image is meta in this context.

So I’m sitting there on the sofa, late afternoon, and finding it incredibly difficult to just sit still, open my book and read it. (Or, as I would have been more likely to think then, ‘read the damn thing’ with emphasis on that ‘d’ word the same way we place emphasis on Rhett Butler’s uttering of it – this was a damn book and a damnable situation.)

Read a handful of pages, me? I didn’t even want to read 10 – correction: I couldn’t read even 10. And I realised…

The Internet has affected the way I read; it’s affected my reader self. No real surprise there – it’s affected us all.

I read a lot better years ago. I was younger with fewer responsibilities, true, but that wasn’t it. I can’t blame age, adulthood, here. I think our collective description of a tome was different before the Internet. I see 500 page books labelled ‘long’ nowadays and think “that’s not long! Have you seen the size of Gone With The Wind, of Shogun?” We now call what we used to call average or fair-sized, long. I can’t help but think this change is down to our shorter attention span, linked to Internet usage.

I am always distracted by what else I could be doing, often web-based things, but not always. I believe what the Internet’s done is make me less attentive over all so that shorter or more involved tasks, even if they’re as mundane as pulling away clothes, hold more interest. I note how many pages I have left to read frequently. As said, even 10 pages is too many.

The sad thing? This happens even with books I’m loving. It makes me wonder if I’d have liked them even more if the web didn’t exist; it makes me wonder if in an alternative universe there’s a Charlie spending hours reading Jane Eyre with not one check to see how long she’s got left. We would both love the book, but you’d believe her passion for it over mine any day. She’d probably remember more of it, too. I kind of hate her.

I still recognise a good book but do books lose a bit of impact through the loss of attention span?

Planning this post? One of those distracted times. Yes, I came up with the idea upon sitting down to read. I could’ve left it until later but the thing is that reward, that feeling of satisfaction that accompanies writing and finishing a plan, doing any short task, is instant compared to the reward of finishing a book. A plan takes minutes, a book hours, days. You can fit in many more rewarding moments by doing shorter tasks and that fact that the longer ones are ultimately more satisfying doesn’t win out.

I like the idea of unplugging whilst I read – I try to read in a different room, I’ll turn any devices off. But it’s still difficult; it’s as though we’re at the beginning of an evolutionary stage for humanity. Maybe we are.

It’s weird to think I’m going to have to work hard at something so normal, but hopefully I’ll get there as I hope we all will. Reading shouldn’t be this difficult, at least not in this way.

How has your attention span changed since the advent of the Internet and does it affect your reading?


April Munday

July 31, 2015, 8:46 pm

I read on the train on my twice weekly commute to London. That’s an hour and fifteen minutes each way twice a week. There are no distractions, apart from the person sitting next to me and the scenery and there’s not even scenery in the winter when its dark. I read a lot of books that way.

Goodreads tells me that the average length of book I’ve read this year is about 380 pages. The novel I’m reading at the moment is 440 pages, which I notice because each page has so much padding that it feels like ten. Gone With the Wind felt shorter. War and Peace felt like a life sentence.

I don’t have much patience for really short books. I want to get to know the characters and to see how they deal with whatever situation they’re in.

I agree, though, if it wasn’t for the train journey, sitting down and just reading a book would be really hard. I might give it a go later tonight just to see if I can do it.

Jenny @ Reading the End

July 31, 2015, 10:08 pm

I think the application of “long” to 500-page books may be as much a function of a struggling publishing industry as a symptom of our decreasing attention spans. I know in academic publishing, there’s a push to keep books shorter — not to leave out vital information, but to convey the same information in a more concise way — and a lot of that is down to costs and maintaining razor-thin profit margins. A book that’s 700 pages will be more comprehensive, but it will add to production costs and, more expensively, to labor costs from the design people, copyeditors, etc.

I’m guessing there’s at least some of that at work in the trade publishing industry as well: editors being asked to push their authors towards more concise prose and an ultimately shorter book.

Which isn’t to take away from your larger point! I definitely find myself at times struggling to focus on a longer text, and I think the internet is a huge factor in that. I try to correct for it by setting aside chunks of time to read, if I’m able, to get myself back in the habit of bingeing on words.

Literary Feline

August 3, 2015, 4:02 am

My phone is my biggest distraction. My “smart” phone to be exact. I take it everywhere with me and it is so hard not to check it constantly. For e-mails. Twitter. Facebook. Games. Nothing even telephone related! Ugh. I make a conscious effort on the weekend to stay away from my phone so as not to take away from my family time. I need to do the same with my reading time. And that’s regardless of whether the book I am reading is shorter or longer.



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