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Ask HN: Do you find reading increasingly challenging?
56 points by readchallenged on Dec 6, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments
I was a good reader throughout my childhood, youth and academic years. Lately, and after a couple of decades, it's becoming increasingly challenging to focus, consume and finish books. I'm becoming the modern age illiterate. I'm usually squeezed for time - but even if I find some, I don't pick up where I left.

Does anyone encountering the same challenge? Any ideas/tips that could help overcome the cycle? Do you think it's caused by modern information overload, distraction addiction, or perhaps dealing with short cryptographic lines of code?

I'm worried about our attention spans as humans. Mine has certainly gone down. When I was a kid and the internet was less popular and showy, I used to read long-form articles and message boards and do actual reading. Now there's so much content out there it seems to be genuinely hard to not just look for the next "quick fix" in the form of a funny or insightful comment. Reading even a 20 minute article doesn't seem to be the norm anymore.

God only knows how bad this is going to be for kids that are now growing up with youtube.

Mine went down the hill so much that I can't even read books nor enjoy films / videogames anymore.

I've found that crippling my tech is a nice workaround. Some examples:

Sticking to dead tree or kindle-like devices instead of PDF on a computer / tablet makes me concentrate, finish and think about the book I'm reading.

Playing in some dumbed down console allows me to enjoy a videogame and relax without distractions. I rarely play PC games to the end.

I reach my productivity peak with an OpenBSD netbook without internet connection and some spartan window manager like cwm or wmii. I'm also reading man files regularly now instead of compulsively asking my search engine of choice.

I still hate sitting still for 90 minutes in order to watch a movie though.

I don't see what's wrong with the trend of encouraging people not to use 5000 words when 50 would do.

Not that these kinds of forums correct it: people will still link long arguments that they are unable or unwilling to summarize in their own words.

> I don't see what's wrong with the trend of encouraging people not to use 5000 words when 50 would do.

If 50 would do. That's rarely the case.

Most of the time short articles aren't the result of distilling hundreds of hours of wisdom down to an easily digestible few hundred words.

Instead they are the result of dropping all consideration of context and pushing a simplistic view. Or rushing junk out the door.

An article goes from:

"Given our specific set of circumstances (industry, team size, project size, project makeup, technology stack, turnover, strategic direction, short term goals etc) X is great. We considered alternatives Y and Z but discarded them because of A, B, and C. We ran into issues D and E and were able to do F and G to work around them. We later found we had missed risk H in our analysis but we were lucky enough that it didn't come up.


"X is great. We used it to increase our productivity by 10%."

I think we're in agreement, in that I would love for articles to look like the first example you gave. In practice, though, they're more like:

[long anecdote about someone using not-X that mixes in numerous other factors and is vague on what caused what]

[long description about meeting with a subject of the story that painstakingly details their hair, their clothing style, their mannerisms, and the general appearance of the venues]

[much more confusing presentation of the paragraph you just gave]

Also, when people link the article or recommends it, they will tend to give either no summary, or a clickbait(ier) version of your second example, like, "The miracle of X".

I.e. just about every article on New Yorker that I've clicked the link for. Ugh, I can't stand that writing style. Please just tell me the relevant information. They should save their justification for all the money they spent on creative writing classes for their short stories that no one will ever read.

Totally agree. There have always been plenty of crappy articles and simply being long doesn't mean being on point.

The problem is that it takes a lot less time to come up with 50 words. 50 words don't require the kind of organization that 5,000 words require in order to stay coherent. It takes an afternoon to write an article. It can take years to write a book. Through bare necessity, longer spans of text require more attention and quality.

Not true! As the saying goes, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."[1]

Writing a shorter post, especially one that summarizes what you'll get out of an article, typically takes more mental work since you have to pack more insight into fewer words.

Writing an investigative article, of course, takes more time and thought but it's not because you're putting more words out; if anything, padding it with flowery novel-style antidotes (that took little research) is how they make them artificially long, and it annoys me greatly.

If what you have to say legitimately requires 5000 words, go for it! Otherwise, your long post is not improving the exchange of ideas.

[1] https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Blaise_Pascal

Counter-argument: Bad writers are bad writers. But a longer piece means the author can't hide the fact that they can't write.

But we read material that is significantly more difficult when we are adults, no?

I find that the kind of people who are "squeezed for time" are always "squeezed for time". You make time for the things you need to make time for, just like everyone else.

That nonsense aside, I was doing what you're doing until I learned an important lesson. I found that I will not gain anything of value by reading quickly and inattentively. If I am spending my time skimming articles, forum posts, stack overflow, without doing something like taking notes, I'm just teaching my brain that most information is useless to me. The sooner I learned that lesson, the sooner I was back to reading books.

I agree with this and have been trying to put it in practice myself.

Like OP, I was an avid reader during my school years and noticed that I wasn't doing it as much the past couple of years. I realized most of the time that I could spend reading books I was spending reading articles from my RSS feeds, but many times just to get a sense of completion (like an Inbox Zero for my RSS feeds), which meant I didn't really let them sink in or wasn't doing any thinking of my own about them.

Realizing that it provided very little value, if any, I decided that I had to stop that and go back to reading only when I have the time to do so at my own pace, and only things that I really wanted to read, not that I felt I had to read for bogus reasons.

Going back to OP's question, I do think that information overload is partly to blame here. At least for me, it's taking a conscious effort to put this in practice and ignore a lot of the information that comes my way.

I don't think it's because you're squeezed for time, but more that you're sense of time has changed.

You're probably used to extracting information you want in a very short period of time via sites like StackOverflow or Wikipedia or whatever. If you're like me, when you encounter something that isn't going to give you the gold quickly, you probably move on to something that will.

You're used to the quick turnaround, so when something takes longer it makes you feel like you're squeezed for time.

For example, I have plenty of physical programming books. A lot of the time I know that the answer I seek is in one of those books. Sometimes I even know which book and the location in that book. But guess what? I still go to StackOverflow first because it's quicker and someone will have already summarized the book. I'm so used to getting information quickly, that actually having to look for it is unthinkable. It _feels_ like I don't have enough time to read the book myself, but that's really not true at all.

Agree that everyone's sense of time is changing. I struggle with this - I can't keep myself from speed-reading/skimming longer form text.

I do think this is problematic, and not all good. A great deal of knowledge still requires significant length of text to convey -- sure, the retrieval cost for any individual limited concept on the internet is much lower, but you're not going to develop a rich understanding of, as a hyperbolic example, the history of China, from one article or from Wikipedia.

Get a Kindle.

I started reading again when it became a lot more convenient, thanks to the kindle.

I think I finished reading all the Wheel of Time books because of the convenience of the kindle (it gets boring around book eight, before a well deserved end).

Paper books are heavy and expensive.

It doesn't work for all books, as it is not a good PDF reader, but for anything that's more text than graphics or layout, it's a huge improvement.

I read a lot of books I've previously put down (Anna Karenina, GoT Series, Ian Banks' Culture Series) because I started reading on my phone (Nexus 5).

If you get the font size right, it's not bad. The advantage of the phone is that it's always in my pocket, so if I've got a couple of minutes of waiting time, I can just pull out my phone from my pocket.

The problem with reading on phones is there is always some notification which will find its way in to the phone. I tried it myself but not spend more than 15 mins getting back to the notifications.

I think kindle is a much better way to address the issue.

Phone is definitely not for everyone, but Androids (no idea about iOS) have a Do Not Disturb function that silences notifs that aren't alarms for a certain amount of time that's ideal for this use-case.

I agree that e-readers are a great thing for convenience. I highly disagree that the Kindle should be recommended by default. Nook offers a similar experience to Amazon without being Amazon, and Kobo has more options for fonts (including custom fonts from the publisher).

I have only experienced the kindle, so I can't comment on the others.

But I agree with you, just because endorsing a particular brand was not intended, I only wanted to suggest the particular technology of e-Ink readers instead of paper books.

No, I don't have any trouble reading (I'm 42).

I think your comment about "squeezed for time" probably explains it. You're probably slightly stressed or burned out through working too long hours. All the evidence suggests that working too many hours is detrimental to productivity, and your inability to focus seems to be proof that your productivity is suffering.

Try relaxing more and reducing your working hours.

It is certainly possible that you have lost the ability to focus, but why not try this much more straightforward explanation first: you didn't like the last couple of books you've read, which is why had trouble finishing them. It is absolutely not uncommon to go from "ugh, I'm not in the mood for this book" to "hmm, this story just doesn't seem to be going anywhere" to "well I could've written something twice as good as this" before hitting on a book that aligns with what you're interested in reading at that very moment. Try to read something different. Follow recommendations from other people. Don't read something because you feel you have to.

The question is, why is OP finding books much less satisfying than when they were younger while , say, my mother continues to enjoy books?

My experience is that my motivation for consuming books is cyclic. Part of it is due to other interests and commitments...I read almost nothing for pleasure during grad school and then spent what felt like every non-working moment reading for the next year. Then there have been two periods where I read The Economist cover to cover every week. The first was two years the second was one...well almost or maybe most of one.

That sort of hits on the other major reason for cyclic reading. My tastes and interests change. Sometimes the right book comes along at the wrong time...and sometimes the same right book comes along twice, by which I mean that one of the interesting things about getting older is that rereading books is not rereading the same book. The greater narrative of which it is a part has changed as I have changed.

One of the other features of getting older is that not finishing a book doesn't bother me anymore. I'm ok if a book doesn't speak to me or stops speaking to me. I enjoy finishing books, but don't see not doing so as quite the moral failing I once did. Maybe I'll come back. Maybe it wasn't that good. Maybe it's overdue. Reading for pleasure is supposed to be pleasurable and the suffering of a hard book or long book or a challenging book has to be worth it, and making it worth it is the author's responsibility, not mine.

Anyway, not having time is the biggest constraint, e.g. currently the time slot that I had been using to read is being used to journal. It's a tradeoff.

Good luck.

I did two things: 1) Create (initially, force) a routine: everytime, read for 30~60 minutes before you sleep. Do that even if it is late and you're tired.

2) Try to use small moments of free time. As an example, if I have more than 30 minutes of free time, I read some pages of a book.

If you stop to think about it, you are probably going to remember recurring moments in which you had 30~ minutes of free time. Instead of using it to read Hacker News or browse Facebook, read something. Commuting is a great example.

I set up an alarm clock for "detox" every day. I turn off my computer, silence the mobile phone and do nothing but read for hour or two. Resist any temptation to check email.

I've enjoyed this article that was recently on HN http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/opinion/sunday/addicted-to...

I am in the same boat as the OP. Loved reading when I was younger, everything from newspapers to novels.

What I find myself doing now with most long-form Web or mobile content, as well as printed magazines and newspapers, is skimming to get the basic facts or quotes and then moving on. I just don't have the time or attention to stay focused anymore.

As for books (fiction and nonfiction), I find myself skimming when I using the Kindle. The Kindle Fire is even worse because of the easy access to other distractions. For printed books I can focus but I have found my threshold for abandoning a book is much lower. I did this recently with a novel by an author I used to love; I just felt the characters in the new novel were wooden and I noticed some basic editing errors. I returned the book to the library after about 40 or 50 pages.

As for the reasons behind this: I am not a programmer so for me the issue is not related to dealing with short lines of code. I think it is a combination of information overload, easy access to screens, and training our minds (through exposure to text messages, tweets, online updates, short video clips, etc.) to prefer condensed communication.

The trend makes me uncomfortable, but on the other hand, I also see it as part of the evolution of media and society. If we look back through history, we can see how other new media had a similar impact. Newspapers, film, and television changed styles of writing and peoples' preferences for reading materials and storytelling. Then, as now, there was great discomfort in the way media and storytelling evolved. A 1961 speech by the then-chairman of the FCC called television a "vast wasteland." If you go further back, there was negative reaction to the introduction of radio, the use of photos in newspapers, and even opera, which was seen by 17th-century British intellectuals as "chromatic torture." There has been a lot of thoughtful expository writing about this; if you are interested (and can manage to read an entire book) I recommend checking out Mitchell Stephens "The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word" (1) and Walter Ong's "Orality and Literacy" (2). They are somewhat dated now, but I think they really documented important transitions from antiquity to the end of the 20th century.

1. https://www.nyu.edu/classes/stephens/rise%20of%20the%20image...

2. http://www.amazon.com/Orality-Literacy-Anniversary-Edition-A...

This is the subject of Nicholas Carr's _The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains_.

In a nutshell, he argues that our brain gets better at things that we do a lot, and worse at things we used to do a lot but now do a lot less. Reading is not different from any other activity in that sense.

And many people nowadays don't read many long, hard books anymore, and instead quickly skim short articles and then switch to the next.

So we get better at quickly getting bits of information from short articles, and worse at staying focused for an hour on the same demanding text.

I find it hard to argue with.

I too had not read much in 2014; physical books. This year I decided to read physical books and have been able to read quite a few.

I would suggest reading some books from 'A Very Short Introduction' series. Each topic is written by an expert in that field; and is about 130-150 pages. I have read books on Marx, Foucault, The History of Life. Next up is Metaphysics; followed by Logic, Planets and Fractals. I am enjoying reading these in a cafe!

I am sometimes genuinely busy and have trouble finishing articles and what not that I would like to finish because of that. But a lot of the trouble I had with reading was health related. I have serious respiratory problems and reading paper anything causes me problems. I now do almost all my reading online and I expect to go the kindle route for books at some point in the future. I am healthier these days and I can occasionally pick up a paper book and read it, but I do better using an electronic device.

You might look into taking a few supplements or improving the quality of your diet. We tend to become deficient in certain things as we get older and this can reduce our ability to focus. Reversing the deficiencies I suffered has helped me get my brain back, at least somewhat. It's not like I can calculate math problems faster than you can type them into a calculator these days like I once could, but I do function better than I did when I was really ill.

Walk more, eat better, consider switching to a kindle reader. Perhaps it is health related, as it largely was for me.

Best of luck.

I made a conscious decision a few months ago to decrease the number of online articles I read. I realized that I wasn't finishing most of them (and most people don't) and if I wasn't learning any relevant to me then they were basically trivia.

I've concentrated more on slimming down my book shelves by getting to all of those books that I always wanted to. I'm finding them more illuminating and enjoyable than any short article. I find them more likely to change my viewpoint than any catchy article could because someone dedicated months, if not years, to put their work out there.

As far as finding time, unless you're busy from when you wake up into when your head is back on the pillow you can find time for what you feel is important enough. For me I've cut scrolling through articles and social media for something more substantial.

Regarding slimming down the personal library, the method I developed was to get rid of anything I wouldn't recommend to someone else. That really helped me separate the wheat from the chaff.

For finding time to read, I go through lulls when I try to read before I go to bed since I almost never can finish a chapter before falling asleep. Instead, I started carving out time in the afternoons on weekends when I often have a couple open hours.

I never liked reading books cover to cover and still don't. But I find that new (or different to the usual) quiet environments make it a lot easier to concentrate. For me the public library is one of those places. I put my phone on silent and can read for few hours at a time. I can even read more when I sit in the bathroom, than I do on my regular chair at my desk.

It works the same for me with sleeping. Whenever I start being uncomfortable on my bed, I switch to sofa for a while.

So it would not be a good idea to wait for someone to just summerize this on medium?

Jokes apart ; attention span going down is certainly a concern but do you think we all are getting way more lazier? Shortcuts, one line stack overflow answers, instant results and 2 min quick fix tutorials are not just killing attention spans but also making us lazy and bad developers.

Also, it's frustrating in any leisure activity where I'm actively 'consuming' media, I find myself 'project managing' that consumption - what I mean is, for video games, I can only play 3 games at any given time and I can't add any from my queue into the rotation until I've finished one.

Kind of, though in my case it's more that the internet and video games simply grab my attention more than books. I mean, if I have nothing else to do, I can read fine, but if it's between that and say, Super Smash Bros... well, I'm probably not gonna be able to focus on the book.

I am 24 and became like this from age 18 until recently. I felt like an old man. In my case it was caused by undiagnosed Celiac Disease. You may get value from looking into CD, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, or other food intolerances or allergies.

Did you spend too much time on your phone? When many people have nothing to do, they just check cell phones. It's not good.

If you want to read, read paper books or read on kindle. Don't read on your phone.


I have a hard time finishing articles and, even, comments.

It's a very bad situation.

No, I still by paper books and then share them with network. I block time for reading. I don't read stories. Biz books, code books only.

I spend my leisure time on other things - mostly if not exclusively gaming - because I do so much reading professionally.

I only skimmed through these responses. same.

Yes definitely. I am become deliterised.

Yes because of Netflix :(


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