personal history

(Re)learning to read in the 21st century

Learning how to read, forgetting how to read, and eventually learning how to read again, in an age where technology is systematically destroying our ability to focus.

1988 – 2000: Learning

I don’t remember too much about how I learned to read for the first time, but I remember a little.

I guess it’s a unique experience growing up as a native English speaker, learning to read from parents who are not native English speakers. My parents are from China; Cantonese is my other native language. (I can’t read Chinese. Yet.)

I remember struggling with the same quirks of English spelling that everyone encounters: sounding out mountain like “moun-tane” with the long a, then being annoyed to find out that it’s pronounced “moun-tin.” (Try this one: coxswain. Ridiculous!)

Not hearing English spoken at home, I had this persistent issue of not knowing which syllable should be stressed, an effect of my written vocabulary far outrunning the spoken: in kindergarten, reading the cover sheet on my homework packet which was meant for the parents: this week, we’re working on how to re-cog-nize shapes and patterns. That’s how it sounded in my head.

If you look closely, you can see that my kindergartener self was using a valid stress pattern found in other instances where re- means “to do something again”: re-fu-el, re-cov-er, re-learn. Re-cognize. But what does it mean to cognize?

Much later, the funny way I broke down words helped me understand them more deeply: when I learned the word cognition, the other piece of the puzzle clicked into place.

Once I got rolling, past picture books (Frog and Toad, Amelia Bedelia) and chapter books (Roald Dahl), my dad started assigning me one classic novel after another, from the Sherlock Holmes books to The Count of Monte Cristo. I welcomed these assignments (especially any that were seconded by Wishbone which I watched religiously), as they came from a place of genuine interest; my dad wouldn’t assign me any book that he wouldn’t read for fun himself, and he would never force me to read something, only recommend. I suspect he was grooming me to be ready for what I later found out was his favorite book of all time, Les Mis. (Still haven’t read it. It’s on my shelf.)

Most evenings, I had dinner with my parents at home. But every Friday night, my dad and I would go to McDonald’s, without my mom. We’d grab a booth, and I would pull out my book and he’d pull out his Chinese newspaper (Sing Tao, anyone?), and we’d just read for at least an hour over dinner. That was our quality time: reading together and not needing to talk. Like my dad, I preferred French novels to British ones, and didn’t read American novels at all. These books saw me through third and fourth grade.

By fifth grade, I was into sci-fi: Ender’s Game, the Animorphs. In sixth grade, something interesting happened. We moved to a different part of town, so I started sixth grade at a new school. I fell under the spell of a new friend, Nora, and for the next two years, I just read whatever she read. Thus she brought me into the realm of fantasy fiction written for adults: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, for one. Which at the time was 8 books long, each book a 600-to-800-page brick of paper. All year, we’d carry around these massive tomes at school (I loved the hardcover versions I got from the library; each was about the size of my torso at the time), and snootily read them during class, obviously too cool to participate in whatever the rest of the class was working on.

We ate, slept, and breathed the Wheel of Time world. That world was superimposed on the real world, more real than real life. I remember, one of those books towards the middle of the series, I read the entire thing in about a day and a half, and that day, I read for ten or twelve hours straight, barely looking away to eat or move from the chair to the couch and back. That intensity of focus was always typical for me when reading a book; that day marked the peak of my ability to sustain it. And there was nothing else I’d rather have been doing.

I was twelve. After that came the precipitous decline.

2000 – 2018: Forgetting

The year 2000 ushered in a new century, a new millennium–and of most pressing concern for me: middle school.

Middle school was very, very different. It quickly became apparent that one major difference was that attending middle school was going to seriously hamper my reading life.

For one, you no longer had the same teacher for every subject, all day long, for the whole year. You had 6 different teachers, and you might have 6 different ones the next semester. Instead of having just 30 students, each teacher had up to 150 or so, and they were no longer ready to make an exception for just one of those kids who preferred to read their own book rather than do the classwork.

In addition, the classwork, and especially the homework, though not much more difficult than that of elementary school, was a lot more time-consuming. I found I could no longer breeze through it, even if I already knew the topic. There was a lot of mindlessly copying out long texts, rewriting the whole question, and a lot of questions per assignment. That was the first time I recall thinking of homework as being a grind.

Finally, the way they taught you to read books in English class was the polar opposite of my natural reading style: you were supposed to read maybe 10-20 pages each day, and stop to answer a bunch of questions about the chapter and maybe take a quiz. Every day there was a mandatory reading period, where everyone in the school, in every classroom, would stop and read for 30 minutes. Reading was an incremental activity: a little bit each day would somehow turn you into an educated, well-rounded person. Like medicine.

It’s only looking back, nearly twenty years later, that I can see that, perhaps more than anything, it was that mindset that began to slowly dismantle my ability to read. Taking something I could happily do for twelve hours straight, and cutting it off at 30 minutes sharp. It was the beginning of interruption. Up until then, I read knowing I’d be transported: a few minutes to get into the zone, then–by the time I re-emerged, a few hours or half a day later, I might have experienced months or years in the story’s world. Now a novel became a collection of separate little pieces, to slog through over a month or more. And not something the teacher wanted you to experience, for love; but something to be shoved down your throat, for your own good. You performed best if you paid attention to the things the teacher wanted you to pay attention to.

I see parallels between this very structured, heavily mediated approach to reading, and modernity itself. Or industrialized society. You read in moderation, a consistent amount each day. Not too little, not too much. Imbalance would be bad. A book split up into 15 parts, assembly-line style, and read one part per day is assumed to yield the same value as the book read as one whole. Note the words yield and value: it’s not the experience of reading that matters, but what you can extract from it. And in terms of what you can extract from it, there’s no space for flighty things like emotion; you read purely for the almighty Theme. (Cheat sheet: for any given work, if the Theme isn’t “hubris,” it’s “the human condition.”) In this worldview, a novel is no more than a fancy vehicle for an intellectual idea.

I kept reading books outside of school for maybe about a year, then eventually slowed to a complete stop. I only read books for English class. If I tried to read anything else, I found I couldn’t get through it.

All of the above continued into high school. Actually, my grades in English class got worse every year. Don’t get me wrong, I made forays back to reading: closer to the middle and end of high school, I could be found at Barnes & Noble or Borders (RIP) every day after school, until dinner. I read a lot more than your average high school student. But I still read incrementally and distractedly, rarely able to really get into a book and finish it, the way I could as a kid.

One big influence at the time was Gilmore Girls, which I was introduced to when I was 17. Though it’s too bad Jess was never able to manage even the most meager of boyfriend skills, I maintain that Rory and Jess belonged together at least in soul, because Jess was the only one of her boyfriends who could read. Jess made reading cool again. He always had a book either in his hand or in his back pocket. And Jess didn’t read in 10-page or 30-minute increments. He read all day, as though real life were the interruption and he was impatient to get back to the life inside his book.

Jess even communicated through books. His first real interaction with Rory is when he steals her copy of Howl to write notes in the margins for her. Swoon! (Note: if you know me in person, don’t actually do this to my books, unless your notes are brilliant and the same edition is still in print (in case they aren’t brilliant).)

I read everything Jess read in the show. That’s how I got into the Beats: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs (somehow managing to skip Bukowski). The heroes of the other movies I watched obsessively–Pride and Prejudice, Good Will Hunting–also read all the time. Though I’d mostly lost my own ability to read–I read those Beat authors very, very slowly over many months–I too liked to carry a book around with me all day, hoping that if I played the part, I could get the feeling back.

I went to college. From the age of 10 or so, I had longed to go to college, and I assumed college would fix everything. But in fact, it got better in some ways and worse in others. We were asked to read whole books in a matter of days, by ourselves, without breaking them up, the way I used to do. By then that had become a pretty tall order for me, but I tried my best. There were highlights. Kierkegaard. Brian Greene. Authors who are incredibly rewarding once you get yourself all the way into their universe.

But at the same time, in some courses we were asked to read long academic papers every day. Or long books that were much less rewarding. All told, a quantity of reading that, in retrospect, was physically impossible to get through, at least with the kind of attention I applied to everything I read. Teachers would assign a dense 40-page paper to be read today, when it turned out they just wanted you to get the main idea of it. For some reason I failed to get it into my head that that was all I had to do. I wish someone had said to me: “and by read I mean skim,” and then taught me how to skim.

These assignments demanded different mechanics of reading than those in middle and high school–no longer “read a little bit each day for a lot of days,” more like “get the main ideas of this book/paper today”–but it was still about trying to extract the maximum value out of the text, for the minimum amount of effort invested. With the college approach, it’s optimal if you stay disengaged; no time to waste on following the author’s flow of language.

This way of reading was also completely alien to me. But instead of realizing it as such, I decided I was dumb and incapable of self-discipline: I just can’t read, like everybody else can. I’m not cut out for this. I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water. But I muddled my way through, thanks to my writing ability, and did well in college.

That was around the time the iPhone first came out.

A decade went by. In adult life, with a full-time job, it turned out to be even harder to make time to read. When I did, it was almost always in the “medicine” way: trying to get myself to read a few pages each day, but unable to focus even then. And, on top of that, being unable to stick with the same book beyond the introduction or first chapter, before I got bored and wanted to start a new one.

In the meantime, our collective attention spans withered away to something like the attention spans of mice (or so I picture it). We became twitchy. I got my first smartphone and checked it 60 times a day. Communications became segmented into 140-character increments–either that or the size of a comfortably-proportioned text bubble in a messaging app. I’ve noticed a proliferation of contemporary books that read like one blog post, stretched out to fill 200 pages. Maybe because publishing cycles are shorter; maybe because very sparse, repetitive books are easier on the attention span.

My one saving grace was the New Yorker, which I’ve been a subscriber to since I was 21, and have read for a couple hours almost every week since then. It’s not the same as reading a book, but the articles are long, and they haven’t watered them down over time. I credit it with keeping my brain alive until now.

They say you really shouldn’t waste your life finishing books you don’t even like that much, because there are more good books than you can ever read in your short lifetime. And I totally agree with that. But I tried to finish each book I started anyway (and I still do today)–because I wanted to remember what it felt like to finish a book.

So rare now was that feeling of being transported that had been so commonplace for me when I was a kid. I only experienced it a handful of times in the intervening years; maybe just once or twice a year. What’s worse, I was pretty sure that the lack of those experiences was making me stupid, and had been for nearly two decades. Starting around 2016, my favorite way to spend a long weekend was to take the extra day, and try to finish a whole book in that day. The day I read The Argonauts in one sitting (in bed) was the best day of that whole year.

2019 – Present day: Learning again

My best guess as to what saved me is that those book-in-one-sitting days are self-perpetuating: after the first one, I wanted to do it again. And for longer. The more I carved out whole days to read, the more I started to remember: this is what reading feels like. This is how I used to read, this is why I used to read.

Carving out the odd vacation day, turned into carving out most of each weekend, is now turning into carving out a fair chunk of every day.

And it has to be a chunk of several hours. The incremental approach doesn’t work for me, because for me, reading is essentially a romantic endeavor, it’s all or nothing. And it’s nonlinear: reading for 4 hours isn’t 8 times as hard as reading for a half hour; it’s actually easier. Because reading for just a half hour a day means almost 100% of all my reading time is the crappy distracted part where I have yet to settle in, and that makes it hard to look forward to the next time. But reading for 4 hours is less than 20% the distracted part, and over 80% the fun part. And that’s the difference between having to read and getting to read.

If I want to fall in love with reading again, I’ll have to learn how to go about it the way I used to when I was last in love with it: make it a part of life, not something to sneak into the margins of life. My books are what send me off in the morning and what I come home to at night.

What I do these days: during the workweek, I don’t worry too much about it. If I can’t focus then I can’t focus. But weekends, as far as possible, I make no other plans, batch everything I need to do and get it out of the way, and then sit down with my cats and just read, planning to stay there for 1 to 8 hours. Almost always a print book. If it’s nice out, I’ll take a chair outside and read in my garden.

I usually have my phone with me. I don’t let it buzz anymore for anything other than a phone call. I let it light up with a notification pretty much only if a friend is texting me directly, not for emails, not for Slack.

I still get a little thrill when I hit page 100 of a book, because I know that if I’ve gotten that far, I can finish it if I want to. And page 100 only really takes about 3 uninterrupted hours, even at my relatively slow pace. In this way, I’ve managed to finish a book in a weekend, for a few weekends running now. Which is more than I could say for the past 18 years.

“You inquire my Books.” Mostly I just follow my curiosity, which can branch out in a hundred different directions. When I was trying to stumble my way back to reading last year, I read a lot of the fluffy self-help stuff, as it was the only type of book I could reliably finish. Accordingly my curiosity felt stunted. Now I’m starting to work my way back to stuff that’s more substantial, slower-paced, often older. I find pacing isn’t so important unless I’m in it to extract information, or unless I have attention problems. Slow is good, because it’s about the company.

Giving it the kind of attention that befits a passion, I can finally hope to return to the kinds of books I knew how to read as a kid, that I considered out of my reach until now: Proust. The Russians. And, one day: George Eliot, Robert Caro. Les Mis. Not that everything has to be long. But that long doesn’t have to be impossible.

Usually people talk about learning how to read all over again like after a stroke or some sort of brain trauma. Of course, I’m not talking about the same thing. But no joke: it’s worth considering what kind of damage has been done to our brains by the way we live now. What abilities we’ve lost, or, for some people, what abilities we’ve never gotten to experience at all.

When I settle in to read now, it’s like getting on an airplane. Take-off takes some time, it can be bumpy, sometimes it’s delayed for an hour on the runway because you’re puttering around distracted by this and that.

But, eventually, when I stick with it and settle in: flight.

Exactly as I remember it.