The Plague-Ground – Why can’t I read anymore?

I haven’t read a book in well over a year.

Sure, I dip into books, extracting what I need for work. Often and ironically, this involves writers whom I invite to Ramsay Talks to speak about their . . . books.

I also listen to books feverishly, gobs and gobs of them. If it’s an author I’m used to and the plot isn’t too complex, I’ll amp up my speed from 1.25X to 1.50X. I gave up listening to them at 1.0X long ago because it’s so s-l-o-w.

But actually read 75,000+ words on a page or a screen starting on Page 1 and ending at “The End”?

Not any more.

I don’t even mourn the loss of what I thought was one of my strengths. But maybe it never was. As Henry Kissinger replied when asked if he attributed the decline of civility in America to ignorance or arrogance: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

I never thought I’d turn to the 97-year-old Kissinger to solve my reading problem. But he may just have the answer.

“Reading books,” he wrote, “requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships. A book is a large intellectual construction; you can’t hold it in mind easily or all at once. You have to struggle mentally to internalize it. Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up again on the computer.… People are not readers, but researchers, they float on the surface.”

I stumbled across this idea when I was reading an article by Adam Garfinkle in National Affairs called The Erosion of Deep Literacy. He believes that if we lose the capacity to read deeply, we have to be prepared to lose some of the precious things it has helped us build, like thinking deeply and acting deliberately.

I have something called Pocket which lets me save in a single click any article or link I come across online and want to view later. So on weekends, I go into my Pocket and read the more than a dozen articles I typically find there.

Because I also listen to magazine articles rather than read them (via Audm), and am ankle-deep in the sea of podcasts (try Jill Lepore’s The Last Archive), I also Pocketed a piece about Joe Rogan, which I read right after the one with Henry Kissinger.

Don’t know Joe?

Last week, he sold the rights to his podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience”, to Spotify for $100 million. The day he did, Spotify’s market cap rose by $1.7 billion in 23 minutes.

Rogan told The New York Times: “If you want to understand why podcasting is killing, you first need to appreciate the world-changing, brain-rewiring transformation in how we consume information.”

“You can’t cook or walk while reading.… Even books on tape can require too much thinking.… But a podcast doesn’t require that much thinking at all. You get captivated by the conversation.…”

These days, it’s all about captivating and not much about thinking.

Believe me, this is neither a new thought nor my own. It belongs to Neil Postman, whose book Amusing Ourselves to Death sums up our tragic decline in organized thought.

Writes Postman: “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

And when did he say this?

In 1985.

Years before the Internet came for us.

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18 replies
  1. Avatar
    Louise says:

    Your item today reduced me to some tears. We have lost the art of communication and deep reading. I am not a podcast listener. I love to absorb books. Articles in print. Letters (thought they come rarely these days). Since covid-19 I have read about two books. The stack by my bed has gotten higher with the books I have ordered now that the library is shuttered. I can’t seem to dive in. It is shattering me. So is the unknown around me. Are these things related?

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Jennifer Laity says:

    Not only can I not read, I can barely focus. Here in Los Angeles we’ve experienced a night of violence and looting unprecedented since the 1992 Rodney King riots. This on top of the pandemic and the economic earthquake. I can’t read or watch the news so I walk . . . and walk and walk. With no place to really go, it is a numb comfort.

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Hmmmmmmm….now that IS disturbing, Jennifer..an American friend just sent me this e-mail: “I’ll bet Canadians feel like they live in the apartment above
      a meth lab.” Not far wrong, I’m sad to say.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Margaret Swaine says:

    Now that I have some time on my hands, I have found that I’m reading more novels than ever since the lockdown. It’s a joy to be able to spend time with good literature. Podcasts are annoying to me like a mosquito buzzing around my head. I don’t want distractions when I’m reading as I like to absorb, ponder and critique as I delve into a story. I really believe there are still many of us who read in depth and would never find a podcast, e-presentation, or even listening to audio books at all satisfying. On the other hand, I have subscribed to a number of courses presented online by various professors, and have found those to be a fun way to learn, and I can exercise, clip my nails or cook while I listen.

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Margaret — I wish I could divide my reading life into two parts like you. I think I’m doomed to listen rather than see.
      Who knew?
      Cheers and thanks for writing.
      Bob

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Terry Dingle says:

    Right now just finished American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, thank God it made me think ! …about the horrific plight of the refugees in Central America attempting to get into the US….spellbinding, joy&terror, could not put it down. For me books are one of the great glories of life, presently my smorgasbord of reads in progress are, Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, & Trumpocalypse by David Frum. I like to be entertained but not at the expense of a good , mind opening read❗️

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Terry — I just recommended The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel to another commenter. I usually veer away from fiction, as I sense you do.
      But give it a try.
      Cheers.
      Bob

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Jamie Laidlaw says:

    Well, put Bob. I stumbled into Joe through the NYT. Someone called him the new mainstream and he knows it. I quaffed down in a few gulps two hours with Michael Pollan and him and enjoyed every minute. The same was true with Matt Taibi. I have heard Michael speak live and read parts of many of his books but to your point, this was my first behind the net to score at the other end skate with Michael. And I admire him! What troubles me is how little I can remember. And I write down notes. So after two scintillating hours, all I can tell you is that the discussion was about drugs.
    I am not impressed with myself, not at all.

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Jamie — The next time we get together, we must swap Michael Pollan stories. In the meantime, my ‘focussed-memory-loss
      is shocking. I’m glad to be more impressed with you than you are!
      Bob

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    Joan says:

    Me, I cannot listen to a podcast to save my soul. All that noise. The people nattering on. It’s like being at an endless cocktail party. I’m actually reverting back to hard copy books. Peace. Focus. Quiet. Single-tasking rather than multi-tasking.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Cliff Goldfarb says:

    Bob:

    For most of my life, if I started a book, I finished it, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. But lately, I’ve started a number of fiction books from my ToBeRead shelf and dropped them after a few dozen pages, But I continue to read and enjoy non-fiction — history, biography, futurism. If I hadn’t already read pretty much everything by Walter Isaacson, I’d be on a binge of him now. I can’t listen to blogs — I find myself paying more attention to how many minutes there are to go, or losing my attention to something else.

    Cliff

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Cliff — My impatience with fiction goes back a long way. I would “give a novel a chance” of say 25 and at most 50 pages.
      If it didn’t absorb me by then, it was off with its head, though clearly it was my head that lost. I do have a wonderful novel
      for you to read, however, that I just finished as an audiobook: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel.
      Cheers.
      Bob

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    Catherine Morrow says:

    I knew I was in the same boat when I almost didn’t click over to finish reading your article — on not reading!

    I had so hoped our enforced home-time would at least augment my hard-copy reading, which used to be, if not prodigious, then steady at several books a month. But, not so far. Not. At. All. I ‘audible’ as I putter with my headset on, and it’s lovely to be able to do, but it’s certainly not the same thing. Focus, Cat, focus! What happened to it?

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Cat- I used to think my lack of focus was more a function of age. But no, I think the real reason is “the screens!”
      Cheers.
      Bob

      Reply
  9. Avatar
    Dave Butler says:

    Thanks, Bob. I still devour fiction and non-fiction both, and love the feel of real books in my hands. They force me to slow down, to think and ponder and lose myself in something other than the sound-bites and mind-bites on social media.

    While I do enjoy podcasts immensely, they are for driving … when I’m on the way from BC to Alberta or places in between.

    Reply

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