Trying to Read in a Crisis

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Image by FotoRieth from Pixabay

When the thought was raised of “physical distancing,” that sounded like heaven for a reader. And maybe it has been for some.

Not so far for me, and it may be you see less reviews from me. Typically, I’ll end up reading about 120 pages a day most days. This past week, if I can read 30, I’m doing good.

Some of it is work-related. I work in a collegiate ministry where we are making a rapid shift from face-to-face to digital. I happen to lead one of the digital areas of our ministry, and lots of time has been spent in Zoom calls figuring out how to do that. I just finished a nationwide call with university faculty trying to figure out how to convert their courses from face-to-face to online. We were using the some of the same software they will be using–and learning from each other in the process.

Some of it is just getting our household in order. We had the chance to move up a bathroom remodel. Now I wonder if a week later it would have even gotten done. In recent weeks we had been stocking up at the grocery–before the long lines. We had a sense this was coming, but there has been some extra time just getting our ducks in a row.

But a good part has just been distraction. I find myself checking the news reports more than is good for me and commenting with others online. Apart from finding out what the latest mandates are from our state, I don’t need to do too much more. I know it is going to keep getting worse for a while. I know I have to stay home and stay clean and not touch my face. It’s like it was in 9/11, except this won’t be done for awhile. The news coverage can draw you in, and agitate your thoughts and depress your heart. And it can distract from enjoying a good read.

Probably the best thing is to check in with my nightly news once a day, and stay away from news coverage the rest of the time. Sometimes I leave the phone in a different room so I’m less tempted to check it. Someone mentioned getting out for a walk. Haven’t done much of that recently, and I find that always clears my head. I sleep better and focus better. Replace screen time with walk time!

And maybe I just need to accept that my page count will drop for awhile. Maybe as things settle in that will change. I suspect in all sorts of way, this is a time where we need to be gentle with ourselves as well as with each other. It might even be a way where to get liberated from some compulsions. Some people waiting for me to review a book may have to wait longer. Right now, in the big scheme of things that doesn’t seem important.

These days, I find myself giving thanks that I’ve been preserved through another night, and at night through another day. I’m thankful to take a breath of air outside my door and scent the coming spring, which gives me hope. I give thanks for meals enjoyed at home. I give thanks for the quiet around me as I write. And when I can, I give thanks for the minutes I can spend with a book and a cup of coffee. The present crisis reminds me that all these things are gifts, gifts with which I may have become far too familiar.

A Facebook Conundrum

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I ran into a conundrum yesterday in posting the above meme, of all places, on my Bob on Books Facebook page. It is a page that gather readers to talk about books and share their common love, and offers everything from humor to serious articles about book-related topics.

The conundrum, as some who are on the page noted, is the act of posting something like this does the very thing it discourages, taking us away from the book we were intending to read. It could probably be argued as well that hosting the page, and blogging about books,  takes me away from reading.

It may be observed that there are other things beside books, including the communal act of talking about books and ideas, hopefully civilly and substantively, rare things in our society, and even rarer on social media. I also post humor, because I think it is a healthy thing to laugh at ourselves as the quirky creatures who love books and reading and all things related, like libraries and bookstores.

But I also realize that it is possible to help dig reading’s grave with digital distractions. Apps like Facebook are exquisitely designed to do just that. Of course, we can say we are “reading,” and sometimes we really are. I find a number of great and interesting articles, that in the reading, enhance my understanding of authors, bookselling, and you name it connected with books.

Perhaps this is another aspect of the double-edged nature of many technologies, maybe all technology. Atomic energy can kill cancer, or kill people. Opioids can provide a merciful release for those in intense pain, or addict and kill.  Likewise, social media can point us to worthy books, and distract us from reading them.

So what is one to do? Perhaps the best I’ve come up with is to have social media time, and book time. It may mean having the phone in another room while one reads, or to turn off all notifications. Of course this is a problem for those who read on their phone or tablet computer with non-reading apps. Probably most of us need to set some boundaries on social media. Increasingly apps can even be set to allow us only a certain amount of viewing time per session.

I think managing digital distractions, which is really self-management, is just a reality of our modern lives, at least for most of us. Such self-management is what allows us to appropriately and not inordinately use such technology.

At least that’s what I tell myself as I curate my page. I assume we’re all adults and have learned, or are learning to set our own boundaries of social media use. It does seem that this is so from the titles and numbers of books people report having read. Maybe the meme above is nothing more than a “gotcha” moment we all laugh about.

But I’ve not stopped thinking about the conundrum, and trying to discern the line between ordinate and inordinate. I’d love to hear from others who host social media or blog sites as to what they think about this.

“America is Addicted to Wars of Distraction”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, by David Shankbone [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikipedia

Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer who has described herself as “a myth buster by trade,” made this observation in the Times of London on April 22, 1991. I don’t know the context of the quote, although this comes toward the end of the first Gulf War. Whether Ehrenreich (of whom I’ve not always been a fan) is referring to America’s actual wars or some of the metaphorical wars of political discourse, I wonder if she has a point.

I wonder if so many of the conflicts on our political landscape, whether intentional or not, are distractions from larger issues, ones that, if true, are really uncomfortable to face. Perhaps the biggest of these is the future of life on the only place we really have to live. It seems to me that it would be like arguing about the size of the iceberg if you are a passenger on the sinking Titanic.

Every year seems to be the record hottest for the planet. Cities like New York, Washington, DC, Miami and our naval base at Norfolk could be the new Venices. Summer temperatures in some parts of the world inhabited by millions are reaching levels that pose significant dangers to human life. Often, the populations most affected by the changes that have already happened or that will happen are the least equipped to handle them. There have already been massive species die-offs. Are we being presumptuous to think we are exempt? It may be more comforting to us to keep fighting about all this, calling each other tree huggers and climate deniers.

I could go on. I cannot help notice that there are deep flaws in a society where life expectancies are declining, where deaths from suicide are on the rise, where we have more than one “mass shooting” incident a day, where large swaths of our population are wrestling with substance addictions. Are we concerned with the disparities of health outcomes that depend on zipcodes, and that life and death (or bankruptcy) often depends on the health coverage one has, something that could change with a merger or a layoff.

It’s not that people aren’t talking about these things. They are. They tend to be fighting about them. It seems to me that often fighting is like turning up the car radio when the car starts making unusual noises we haven’t heard before. All our political arguments seem like distractions that mask or divert our attention from the ominous noises our society, and our planet are making.

I disagree with Ehrenreich in one important regard. Creating “wars of distraction” is a human rather than American thing. We all do it to avoid facing unpleasant things. The problem is that distractions can kill if they are ignored long enough. On the other hand, silencing the distractions and paying attention to the big scary thing that seems insurmountable is actually empowering. Getting to the hospital at the first sign of a heart attack can save one’s life, and subsequent lifestyle changes may extend it.

Instead of the arguments that distract us from big hairy problems in our world, perhaps it is time to stop arguing. We may not know what to do (or we may have some notions). What if we shut up long enough to really pay attention to why our life expectancy in the US has been going down. What if we paid attention to gun violence long enough to wonder why so many mostly young men in good health are choosing to end their own as well as a number of other lives, which is often the way these things conclude.

If you notice, I’ve said nothing about political party proposals or government solutions. Right now everyone is talking past each other, mostly distracted from the realities they are arguing about. What if we started paying attention to what is happening in the world instead of fighting about it? What if we started taking personal steps on the basis of what we see? I suspect we all might notice things that have been hidden in the arguments of others. We might conclude that things are urgent enough to start listening to each other and stop fighting. I just hope it is soon enough.

If you are tempted to argue about climate change, or gun violence, or other realities I mention in this post, you’ve not understood the point of the post, which is that our arguments often distract from the things we are arguing about. I will take down argumentative comments in the interest of promoting paying attention to the things we have been arguing about and considering what personal action we might take.

Digital Distractions?

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My trusty e-reader with a “Vicky Bliss” mystery loaded. (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

Back in 1994 Sven Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, which argued the modern life is changing the way we read. Think about it–in 1994, the internet was all text based and most of us who were around them were just discovering it. Cell phones were these primitive brick-like contraptions with an antenna you pulled out that you only used to make phone calls. We bought or rented videos, listened to books on either cassettes or CDs, and watched TV either over the air or on cable.

There have been scores of articles since, including a more recent one touting a new book by Birkerts, still contending that our technology disrupts our reading, and our writing. At least from the side of reading and engaging with books, I suspect the issue is a bit more complicated. A recent discussion at my Bob on Books Facebook page suggests that the advent of various digital technologies have had both benefits and downsides.

A regular commenter said various digital technologies have tripled her reading! A number of people have found e-readers have facilitated their reading. One person, whose husband is connected with the military, found her e-reader helped them meet weight restrictions on their moves. They are also convenient for reading while traveling (another time where trimming weight makes sense). Many use free library downloads to save costs. E-readers make digital text searches easier for research purposes. Some find reading easier on an e-reader, including a person with eye problems, for whom an e-reader is “a real blessing.” Another person, however, thought their e-reader was messing with their eyes, and some still prefer real books to e-readers. However, one person reading an 800 page book wished it were on her e-reader because of the weight of the book!

Audiobooks are also a favorite for a number, particularly because these make it possible to take in a book while engaged in other activities. One artist friend finds listening to an audiobook helps him focus on his work. In another discussion, a number linked audiobooks and exercise. Nothing wrong with getting physically and mentally fit! Some of us (myself included) exercise while reading on our e-readers.

One of the other ways technology aids readers is in searching for books. Project Gutenberg offers 58,000 e-books for free download. Library websites facilitate searches for books, reserves, and downloads of e-books and audiobooks. The energy savings of not having to physically go to the library in many cases is not to be overlooked. It is now possible to link a local library or bookstore to Goodreads under the “Get a copy” function.

TVs and smartphones can be a problem. One person observed their reading time go way down when they discovered streaming services on TV. One person decided to quit television. Others find social media like Facebook a distraction. They are reading, but…. This can be a problem when you use a reading app on your phone, but get distracted by others apps, particularly if you have notifications turned on for any apps. But there is a problem that once the phone is on, it is easy in a moment of boredom or distraction to check Facebook…or Twitter…or even Goodreads. Fifteen minutes later you remember you were reading. Some admitted that addiction to their phones is a problem that is cutting into their time.

Perhaps for these reasons, or just the love of the feel of a physical book, there are a number who still like to turn the pages, and my observation is that they turn quite a number of pages from the books they report on reading! Unless one is listening to an audiobook, I suspect most of us probably need to put mental or even physical distance between our e-book or physical book and our phone. Dedicated e-readers on which you can only read can be helpful here. Perhaps it can be healthy to have times of the day where we don’t have our phones with us, and reading times may be one of them.

None of this explores a deeper question, and that is whether we engage in the same way a physical book, an e-book and an audiobook. My hunch is that we do not, but we still may attain the same end, whether it is simply diversion, or illumination. I wonder if the issue is not what I’m reading but how well I am paying attention, and how actively I am thinking about what I’m reading. However, I would maintain that reading, in any of these forms is better than not reading, and if any encourage those who might not otherwise read to plunge into a book, that’s a good thing.

Your thoughts?

“I Could Read Were It Not For All Those Distractions!”

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“The Distracted Reader” Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, 2013. (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Does that sound like you? It sure sounds like me some times. You settle into your favorite chair with a warm beverage and just get into the flow of a book–and the phone rings, or a child comes out of the bedroom with an upset stomach, which he proceeds to launch all over the room. For those of us who love to read, it often feels like a tug of war to find time to read, or to read well when we do, because of distractions from things, people, and sometimes our selves.

Here are the distractions I and some of my friends on my Facebook page have run into, and some thoughts of how we might deal with them:

  1. Thoughts. Perhaps this is one of my main distractions. Sometimes they come from what I’m reading, and might be worth pursuing. After all, don’t we read to enrich our minds? A notepad to capture those golden thoughts (or maybe brass) might be a good idea. Other times, thoughts just pop into one’s head. In that case, most of the time, just telling them to pop back out is good enough. Sometimes, we are thinking about a troubling life situation. That may be the time to lay aside the book, and pay attention.
  2. Life obligations. Many of us have to work. There are lawns to mow, houses to clean, meals to prepare and enjoy, and bills to pay. Usually the stage of life when we no longer have these obligations comes with advanced age and physical decline. Perhaps we should be grateful for life and health, and find ways to reward ourselves with time to read when our work is done.
  3. Sleepiness. That’s the one problem with reading as a reward for finishing our work. We sit down, and we crash. Standing might be a good alternative. I have a high dresser with a good lamp at which I read sometimes. Many of us sit too much anyways. At the same time, our bodies are telling us something, and most often, it is that we are not getting enough sleep, which for most of us is at least seven hours.
  4. Smartphones. This is a big one, and one I struggle with. I shut off notifications which can nearly constantly distract one. Even better is to put it in another room if you can’t resist checking in on Facebook every ten minutes. Don’t have it sitting by the book–if the book is the least bit dull, or closely written, guess what wins the attention war? If you want to share something you’ve read, bookmark it and come back to it at the end of your reading time. It has been suggested that smartphones are changing the way we read, and our attention span. Finding time to read “unplugged” may be critical for our attention to extended narratives or arguments.
  5. People. Keeping a sense of proportion in our lives and remembering what matters more is important. I don’t think I regret a single hour I spent with our son as he was growing up. As a result, there are some seasons when we will have less time to read. And we don’t want to miss those moments for various forms of intimacy with our significant others! Sometimes, people find a momentary reading retreat in the bathroom–as long as no one else needs the facilities, and people don’t start worrying that something has happened to you! Sometimes, we take some time to turn off the TV and read, and then talk about what we’ve read. Take advantage of different rhythms. I wake much earlier (and crash earlier) than my wife. That early morning time is reading time.

There is life beyond reading, and reading is just one aspect of a richly textured, well-lived life. But taking deliberate steps to set aside undistracted time to savor a book and think about it can enrich the whole of our lives. It is when books occupy an inordinate rather than ordinate place in our lives (something that will be different for all of us) that we have problems. There may come a day I cannot read. Have I cultivated both friends who might read to me, and an inner richness that sustains me when they are not present? There is an episode (here is a short clip of the ending) of The Twilight Zone where bookish Henry Bemis finds himself the only survivor of an apocalypse in the midst of a library full of treasured books and he cries out “time enough at last” only to be cruelly disappointed. We don’t want to be this guy.

Distractions and Good Reading

Do you ever find yourself reading the same passage in a book over again because you realized you just read a page or more while your mind was somewhere else? I’ve got to admit, I’m looking for a little comfort here because it sure happens to me and I hope I’m not the only one and that it is not a sign of some type of advancing senility!

I find it happens most when I’m reading material that is intellectually “dense”. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily bad writing, but rather simply writing that is making a careful, extended argument. I read a certain amount of those kinds of books, mostly in theology or philosophy or sometimes academic books in other areas. I suppose a simple solution might be to not read those kinds of books! But I guess I still want to explore some new (and old) frontiers of ideas.

There are a few things that I do find important that help me in that kind of reading:

1. Do it when I am well-rested and awake. If I’m tired and want to read a bit, much better a light mystery.

2. Read this kind of material in a quiet setting. Sometimes I like to read with music in the background. I’m learning I can’t do that with this kind of material, particularly since I’ve begun singing with a choir–I can easily get distracted by a passage of music, and even more if it is choral.  Maybe this just signifies that, like Winnie the Pooh, I am “a bear of little brain”!

3. Posture matters. Sitting at a table with a hardback chair works best. Or sometimes standing!

4. Sometimes taking notes helps, although I mostly do this for books I’m discussing with a reading group.

5. Books with long, involved sentences sometimes make more sense if I read them aloud. This can be especially helpful if the writing was originally oral material.

6. It helps, if I can, to “unplug”–the computer, the cell phone–all those electronic intrusions that may seem so urgent but rarely are.

7. It helps me to recognize the point of no return–that point where I’m mentally saturated and what I need is time to reflect on what I’ve read rather than to read more.

There is one element of distraction that none of these measures completely helps with. That is that inner voice. Sometimes it is taking me down a rabbit trail from what I’ve read. Sometimes it is thinking about a task that lies ahead in the day or a conversation I had with someone, particularly if it was difficult. Sometimes it is a totally random thought–where did that come from?

Sometimes those distractions need attention. It may be that there is something more important for me to think about or act upon at that moment than what I am reading. Sometimes, a “note to self” allows me to set it aside. Sometimes a prayer helps if it is a concern that has come to my attention. Sometimes, I need to set that book aside to make a call, send an email, or do something. Sometimes, if it is totally random and unimportant, simply realizing my wandering mind and laughing at my puny mental capacity, and picking up where I left off seems best.

I suspect (or at least hope) I’m not alone. So how do you, my reading friends, deal with distractions?