Discover more from ~$ matt > /dev/null
I’ve Forgotten How To Read
This, unfortunately, is not a startling realization for me. Rather, it has been a creeping, nagging doubt in the back of my mind, one that I’ve attempted to avoid through the usual modes of self-delusion. My time is a valuable thing, hardly worth wasting on this pointless self-analysis, right? The news these days is all condensed to 140 characters or so, which by my estimation probably puts literary consumption, the human appendix, and male nipples at approximately the same level of usefulness.
Okay, nothing has happened on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat since I started writing. Well, there were some tweets about something VC-related on TechCrunch which I don’t really care about, and everyone on Facebook is complaining about how many New Years resolvers are taking over all the treadmills at the gym. It’s just social background noise, mostly because I didn’t resolve to exercise more and I didn’t go to the gym. In other words I’m pretty neutral on the subject. Wait, Snapchat got hacked recently. I should check and see if my phone number got leaked. I wonder if anyone has developed a browser plugin that analyzes (and consequently blocks) posts from everyone who is complaining about the same thing on social media.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t always have this many mental threads jumping around in my head. When you grow up with a lot of Legos and books and a TV that you’re allowed to turn on for maybe 30 minutes per day, entertainment is proportional to effort. That molded plastic citadel isn’t going to build — and subsequently destroy — itself, let alone free the heroic rebel prisoners (usually played by the Lego construction worker figurines, for some reason) from their miserable dungeon, guarded by the fiercest Beanie Babies. And of course there are always a lot of rules involved, particularly related to the distribution of munitions between both armies and whether or not the rebels’ attack is a surprise (hint: it always is.) So we’re looking at a full day of effort here, more or less, for this one particular battle.
In some senses, reading was a vacation from the work of creating those fictitious universes. Diving into someone else’s story meant that the effort of creating a narrative arc with sufficiently motivated protagonists and antagonists that reached a conclusion after a finite number of pages was already done for me: all I had to do was turn the page. There’s something comforting about letting an author make the decision about when to end a story, or letting the sommelier choose the wine to go with your meal. If you enjoy their decision, great; if you don’t, the responsibility has been lifted from your shoulders. It’s a win-win.
Cool, I’ve made it through two paragraphs this time without being distracted. I think that entitles me to browse the front page of Reddit at the very least. Or I could skim through Feedly and see what articles I’ve missed since the last time I checked it two hours ago. Oh, maybe I should find an image to go with this blog post. I’m thinking maybe something about libraries?
All the way through high school, I maintained a strict, (mostly) self-imposed reading regimen: I prioritized books over other entertainment, I finished every book I started, and I read at least one book a week. This inadvertently paved the way for my only deep, lasting regret about college: it changed the way I read. I think the reasons for this are two-fold. First, reading for analysis and comprehension is a vastly different experience from reading for enjoyment. Oh, the assignment involves reading 100 pages over the next two days? It’s actually a fairly light task, assuming you’re skimming the text for keywords, highlighting phrases you think you’ll probably quote in the paper you have to write in three weeks, and really analyzing one section of the text (in whatever sense SparkNotes can be considered analysis) so you’ll have something to say in class. Basically, you learn to grasp and regurgitate the entire concept of a book without letting any of it actually penetrate your consciousness.
Now, I write all this at the risk of offending the sensibilities of every single professor who has ever given me a reading assignment, particularly the Liberal Arts ones. Allow me to say that their efforts were not in vain: I still maintain a mental catalogue of Things I’ve Learned which serves me well to this day. But by virtue of the fact that I am not an English major, my reading style is now far more utilitarian than it has been in the past.
The second blow to my attention span, which (in my mind) is far more insidious, has been regrettably self-inflicted: audiovisual media replacing printed media as my main form of entertainment. My lack of attention to pop culture for so many years made me into a veritable Jon Snow in regards to the cultural zeitgeist: I knew nothing. I think I have a pretty good grasp of the 90s now, and I hear that the Spice Girls are pretty good. I’m definitely caught up on everything that’s happened in the Internet Era: the ability of Google, Reddit, and Urban Dictionary to help me keep up with the cool kids has been nothing short of magical.
I watch TV now, too. I know how Breaking Bad ended (way better than Lost, obviously.) Past Matt would probably have great disdain for the amount of time that Present Matt spends consuming neatly packaged 30-minute stories with no deeper philosophical meaning. Present Matt definitely thinks that Past Matt is a self-righteous pretentious snob who’s reflexively against what he doesn’t understand.
American culture is synonymous with TV culture, and TV culture is both highly self-referential and all-consuming. Memes are the Internet equivalent of any popular sitcom: both are an extended inside joke that everyone happens to be in on. I don’t want this to turn into a rant about TV or pop culture. My main point is that to participate in American culture (and the typical American college campus is a magnifying glass for this sort of thing), you need at least some idea about what everyone else is referencing.
But, maybe I’ve taken things too far. It’s so much easier to watch an episode of Futurama than it is to read for 20 minutes. Because, honestly, what book are you going to finish in 20 minutes? Maybe I have exactly 20 minutes before I need to be asleep to get my full eight hours for the night, and I just want to turn my brain off. Maybe I just want to turn my brain off because it’s full of all the bite-sized pieces of culture I’ve consumed in the past day. I’m sure I’ve skimmed through at least a thousand tweets in that time. That’s a lot of thoughts from other people to have bouncing around in my head. Maybe I’m creating my own self-fulfilling dilemmas.
So I guess I just spent 1,000 words saying that my goal for the next year is to do more focused reading, and balance out the fragmentation. Maybe I just should have tweeted this instead.