I was going to apologise for the long silence here. I am working on a post about depression, it is difficult to complete and I don’t know when I’ll be done. In the meanwhile, I’ve posted reviews of books I have read recently, and this post is about the virtues of and barriers to reading books.
I’ve wanted to return to a habit of reading books regularly for years. I’m always reading stuff – basically any text I see around me and heaps of articles, blogs and other online communication. I can’t not read… but have for a long time rarely read books.
Probably because the books have a severe competitor: the Internet. There are always things I want to look up, read about, see videos about, write about, or discuss on the Internet… so that I don’t have time to read books. Or sleep… some of the time.
Reading on the Internet
The Internet is a huge game changer; it is strongly empowering. For a person like me who is a bit of a loner in many ways, it gives easy access to a world of knowledge and ideas and people that I otherwise most likely wouldn’t be able to reach, or at least not that easily. The Internet is a vital source of learning, opportunities and relationships which I wouldn’t want to be without.
But the Internet is also massively distracting. It encourages an AHDH-like, superficial reading style. A tendency to skim vast fields of information, cherry-pick the most immediately engaging bits, and move on quickly.
The below video pictures typical Internet behaviour as obsession with constantly checking social media updates. I’m not so prone to that, I’m more into pursuing specific information tracks, but I do agree with the key point: that the Internet tends to promote a flickering, superficial, try-to-keep-an-eye-on-everything kind of information searching behaviour.
The Internet is extremely addictive. There is a lack of boundaries associated with it, a lack of definite beginnings and endings. I spend monstrous chunks of time on the Internet, and often I don’t notice what precisely I spend time on or consider much whether it is worthwhile. Time just flies, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
I won’t stop because I feel like I am busy, feel like I am in a flow, but often the flow is diluted, drained, exhausted from too many side-tracks, and I have stopped thinking and continued browsing out of inertia. I may have absorbed a lot of information but it is hard to tell what I have learned because there is no well organised track of evidence, no obvious completion of a milestone, no way to measure the quality of learning.
Books, on the other hand, have a different kind of impact. They are grounding. Calming. Tactile. They welcome handwritten notes, highlights and drawings in the margins*… encourage a personal hands-on relationship. They anchor the attention for long periods of time. They represent milestones, learned insights, completed stories.
That’s why I want to make it a habit to read more books and spend less time on the Internet. Notice that I don’t mean I want to abandon the Internet; just establish firmer boundaries and prevent it from flooding too many aspects of my life with distractions.
Personal history of book reading
Long time ago, learning to read was like getting a magical key to an infinite number of worlds: books. Books and stories were safe platforms for exploring a multitude of realities. A library was like a Universe, albeit not an infinite universe. I pretty much drained the library shelves for books about my favourite topics, and then had to slowly expand my interests.
No more books about horses? Then any books about any companion animals was potentially interesting. When that area was exhausted, then I would read about wild animals. I loved to immerse myself in fictive worlds (and escape the world around me), whether reading books or writing “books**”, but I also read many handbooks about my favourite animals at the time – like horses, dogs, budgies, and guinea pigs.
I largely abandoned reading books during my weird adolescence, fighting a sense of confusion and disconnection from the world, and trying to minimise all inputs so as to curb the confusion. I think that was the reason, mainly.
Turn off the lights
A few months ago, I curbed my evening Internet activities with the introduction of a new evening routine. More precisely it was my psychologist, who I’ll call Mr. S here, who introduced the change to help me break a vicious cycle of waking up shaken every morning and problems with generalised anxiety, depression and exhaustion.
I’ve had solid morning routines for many years but no set evening routine. My natural evening routine is to hang out on my computer till late and then drop dead in my bed when sleep overwhelms me.
Mr. S said my brain is still highly stimulated when I go to sleep like that, and that’s what triggers nightmares and in fact keeps anxiety levels high 24/7 in a vicious cycle. “The anxiety level never gets down to normal”. “You need to turn off all the lights in your brain before you go to sleep, just like you turn off all the lights in the house”.
“You need to turn off all the lights in your brain before you go to sleep, just like you turn off all the lights in the house”.
The medicine for the vicious cycle of constant over-stimulation is to set & keep a proper evening routine.
The routine means to turn off all screens – laptop, tablet, TV***, at least an hour before bedtime to give the brain enough time to wind down before going to sleep. Running or other stimulating physical activity is also ruled out during that time.
The wind-down time begins with a Progressive Muscle Relaxation Sequence, and the rest of the time before going to sleep can only be spent on low-stimulation activities like reading books and listening to music.
It isn’t as easy as it may sound. I absolutely hate to interrupt what I am doing, and I am highly likely to be deeply engaged in a computer activity when the “Wind Down” alarm bell rings****. Leaving something incomplete feels like a big gap – I can’t just forget about it. I know I’ll sleep much better if I finish it, because otherwise it will keep roaming in my mind. I’m also somewhat unlikely to be able to continue another time (hence my huge backlog of abandoned projects, including drafts to blog posts).
But I also know I need to wake up early tomorrow… and that I need to keep the evening routine. So it is a bit of a battle between me & myself with conflicting interests, but it does work. I have been keeping the new routines for almost 2 months now (largely), and noticed the positive change after about a month:
I’m calmer with more sense of stability and control. It is (slightly) easier to start the day early and keep days structured and productive. Few mornings begin with “shell shock”. I have few nightmares. And I am reading books during the wind-down hour and beyond, and really enjoy it and learn stuff. My so called Internet addiction has lost some of its foothold.
So, there it is … Time to wind down and time to read books, undistracted by the Internet.
Little tricks to get book reading on track
At last I’ll mention that, ironically, a social media platform has proved hugely helpful in getting my book reading on track; namely the book sharing platform GoodReads where I set up a Reading Challenge as one of my objectives for this year to motivate myself to read books.
A Reading Challenge is just a public commitment to read a specific number of books within a year. It then “monitors” the progress towards the goal by displaying the updates visually with a progress bar. I find progress bars highly motivating.
I wasn’t too ambitious when I set it up: 10 books for all of 2013 (I’ll exceed that), but it works beautifully as a motivator.
And here is a progress bar for each book that I am Currently Reading:
Additional helpful functions of GoodReads and other book sharing platforms is the ease of finding books to read via the recommendations, the matching of one’s book preferences with other people’s, the to-read list, book reviews and social network features. I’ve grown quite fond of this service.
Why I buy books
The last way I’m helping myself to rebuild a book-culture, is that I buy the books that I read. Most books are not expensive to buy online, and I like the idea of paying for the books. Authors need food too, and it feels nice to know that writing books is a profession, or at least a semi-profession (probably hard to live from).
I also buy books because I like to personalise my reading by writing notes in the margins. I also like that I can read the books as many times I like and look passages up whenever I want to. And it just feels good to own books. And also, I don’t need to fear the library fines for late returns.
Ps. A warm thanks to Openclipart.com for all the great free illustrations used to illustrate this post and many others.
PPs. Ironically, I failed to keep my evening routine in my keeness to finish this post. “I just need 15 more minutes, then I’ll be done”, and the hours flew past.
* Except if they are library books, of course
** Handwritten notebook with hand drawn illustrations and maps et.c.
*** I don’t actually watch TV, but in principle. Also, it obviously rented and purchased movies too.
*** Useless detail: it is a duck-sound and not actually the sound of a bell.