How-to Read – Part 1 : Soapboxes, Not Phonics

When I first moved downtown Toronto, my two friends and I grabbed a 3 bedroom apartment above a restaurant.

It was luxurious.

No en suite washer and dryer, a bathroom with a broken fan, and purple painted rooms with golden trees.  So we fixed it up a bit.  Fresh coats of light grey paint, a bit of decorating, and an open window in the bathroom made the place more home than bachelor pad.  But we still didn’t have that en suite washer and dryer.

Enter : the laundromat.

I’d never used a pay-per-wash machine before.  And maybe it’s because I’m a bit distrusting, but my decision to stay in the laundromat and guard my clothes payed off big time.  I used the 32 minutes for the wash ( and 24 minutes for the dryer ) as a time to read.  I’d put in my headphones, listen to some John Williams, turn my phone on silent, and disappear for an hour into a book.  Once a week ( month ? depending on my laziness ), I’d have the same bit of extravagance.  Laundry and 56 minutes of almost perfectly uninterrupted reading time.

I’d add coffee to the mix, or a lemonade in the summer, and take some time to read.  The droning hum of the tumbling permanent press and the sporadic chime of other patrons entering and exiting – and the enjoyment of some peace.

A Hypothesis of Scarcity

It might just be me, but it seems that people are reading less and less.  I don’t care much for stats, so I’m going on my own observations.  I’m putting my undergrad to a bit of use by following the first half of the scientific method.  Ask a question.  Observe.  Construct a hypothesis.  That’s as far as I’ve got – because I don’t get paid to come up with experiments and analyze my data.

So it seems to me that people are reading less.  And I’m not really talking about tweets or facebook statuses – even short blogs.  I mean reading long articles, novels – something with heft.  That’s a bummer to me, a self-proclaimed connoisseur of reading ( only self-proclaimed ).

As with everything on this blog, I want to take some time to dig into this.  To convince someone that reading is worth it ( to be honest, if you’re patient enough to endure reading these posts, I’m preaching to the choir ).  The first step is to work through that age old why question.  Why don’t we read as much ?  Why is reading worth it ?

Part of me feels weird that I’d even feel like writing this post, but it’s got to happen ( at least per my observations ).

Here’s the plan :

  1. Why don’t we read as much ?
  2. Why should I read ?

Distractions, Disturbances, and Diversions ( Oh My ! )

A couple of years ago I went to Florida, solo, to think through the next stage of my life.  I promised myself that I’d read 3 books ( the Lord of the Rings Trilogy ) and do a bit of writing.  The rest of the time I had planned to sit, undisturbed on the beach, watching the sea roll in and out.  That and barbecue steak.

The intentions were noble.  For the first day or two, I was completely disconnected.  I’d wake up whenever I wanted, make my way down to the ocean with one of Tolkien’s tomes, and read.  But I’d have my phone in my pocket – and the wifi reached to my beach chair.  Turns out, every time a *blip* or *boop* chimed in my pocket, I’d leave Middle Earth for my virtual reality.  Long story short, I didn’t get through all three books – I was distracted, constantly.

This is one of the major reasons I think we don’t read as much.  We get distracted.  Reading isn’t a passive activity – it’s active and involved.  It isn’t like watching a TV show where the information is thrown at you.  No.  With reading you’ve got to go get that information.  You have to process and put effort into understanding and *boop*.  Then we get distracted.

Who texted ?

What’s on Instagram ?

Facebook feed scroll.


Distraction, in my humble opinion, is a significant issue these days.  Sometimes when I talk like this, I feel like I’m a cane, crooked glare, and pointed finger away from starting my sentences with “back in my day”.  But distraction is an issue.  There’s a bunch of studies you can google to see that being distracted keeps us less focused, connected, and able to think.  I don’t really want to get into that.  What I want to discuss a bit is this :

Being distracted by menial things keeps us from enjoying exciting things.

I’m not saying that texting is the devil and destroying technology is the path to life.  I’m saying that we often settle for the easy things that come our way – maybe not on purpose, but because we are distracted.  Have you ever felt fulfilled after scrolling for an hour on Facebook ?  Ever felt like you were able to take over the world after splurging on YouTube ? I haven’t really.  And that’s the issue – not enjoying movies or what’s going on in our friend’s lives – but being constantly distracted by them.  So much so that it’s tough to focus, with undivided attention, on a task that takes effort.

That’s a general, high-level, rant on distraction.  A more full blog about it might come in the future.  But for now, just this : we don’t read as much because we are distracted.

It’s tough to spend time, an hour or so, in a book without having your attention diverted.  I know it is.  I love reading and I feel it all the time.  It took me ages to get through Brother’s Karamazov the first time I read it because of distraction.  I’d be about 30 minutes in, and I’d get a funny text from my wife.  Then I’d answer.  And get back to reading.  But I would really remember where I was at in the book – and I’d be expecting another text back.  And eventually, after a few minutes, the book would be on my lap, face down, and I’d be smiling at my screen.

Again, not saying texting your girl is a bad thing.  I’m just saying it’s easy to get distracted.

That’s why we don’t read as much.  It’s not as simple as sitting back at watching a show; it requires all of our attention.  And our attention is constantly being bombarded by the entertaining things around us.

It’s Worth the Time

Reading is a wonderful pastime.

About seven summers ago my brother bought a hammock when he was in El Salvador – and when he got home, we set it up in my parent’s back yard. Every night when I got home from work I’d head out there and read The Chronicles of Narnia.  In about two weeks I was done those seven tales of adventure.  That means I had spent hours in that hammock, pouring over page after page.  It was great.  Simple and great.

Reading is a stress relieving pastime.  It helps boost brain power.  It improves our ability to communicate and understand others.  The benefits of reading are almost countless – and there are many articles to read if you want the scientific grounding for them.  I think the best reason, at least at this time of my life, for reading is empathy.

When we read ( and now I’m talking about fiction mostly ), we engage in someone else’s story – a different life.  Reading opens our minds to see and understand the world through a different set of eyes.  CS Lewis says this in An Experiment in Criticism :

“The man who is contented to be only himself…is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough…Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality… in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad of eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

It’s almost silly to try to add anything to that quote.  So I’ll just try to expand on it a bit.  When we read, we still retain who we are.  We retain our history, the way we think, our current situations and circumstances.  But, when we read, we face invented things.  We face the trials of destroying a ring, of hunting a white whale, of moving to California.  And in those invented things, with the understanding of an invented person, we are confronted.  Not just confronted in how we think – but confronted with the differing lives of others.  We are able to see the same sunset through a myriad of eyes. Through the eyes of a well to do man, an impoverished hobo, and a grieving mother.

That’s the benefit of reading.  At least to me.  It’s a lesson in empathy.  Not so much in telling you : be empathetic and here is how.  But in telling you stories, involving you in them, so much so that you feel each decision and trial.  In giving you eyes and understanding to experience life in a different way than you currently experience it.

Wrapping It Up

It’s a bit tricky to summarize something like this.  This is less an argument in why and more of a soapbox sermon to just do it.

I guess as a bit of a disclaimer, I get that people are busy.  Work.  Kids.  Netflix binges.  And I’m not really hoping that I’ve converted you all to bookworms.  The main goal with this post was to kick-off a series – and to start it off by assessing trends I’ve observed.  It looks like people are reading less, and that bums me out because I love it so much.  And because it is so enjoyable and beneficial.

One of the reasons we read less is we are distracted.  That’s a bigger thing and applies to more than reading.  But it does keep us from opening up a book and enjoying it.

One reason you should read is because it’ll change you.  It’ll teach you, in practical and sneaky ways, true empathy.  You can’t really buy that – well, maybe you can.  Maybe you can buy empathy.  It costs about $15.


3 thoughts on “How-to Read – Part 1 : Soapboxes, Not Phonics

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