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Why can’t we read anymore? (medium.com)
329 points by subnaught on Apr 26, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 191 comments

Part of the problem is articles like this. There were perhaps five interesting sentences of content in that entire piece, and several hundred entirely redundant words and personal examples used only to set the tone.

If modern writers have such disrespect for their audience, is it any wonder some of that audience hasn't the attention span to stick with it?

Older, serious, and timeless literature requires deep concentration because the authors use their thousands of words to express deep pathos that can't be trivialised. It takes practice to commit oneself to a book like that for long enough to get into a flow wherein it can be understood and appreciated. It's _easier_ to read fluff because the dopamine hits quicker, but (for some people) it's worth the effort to read something more meaningful.

In some ways there's an analogy to coding; some books I can't read unless I've got the time to be isolated from distractions. Similarly, some coding problems I can't make progress unless I know I've got more than a half hour to pre-load my brain cache.

Given that I'm railing about redundant words, this seems an appropriate point to stop.

This is the problem I have with the recent surge of popularity of "long-form" articles. Most are long on form, but short on content. People get excited about this form of writing (often pulling in whole ideology of distraction-free reading), but I find it hard to get excited when the actual meaning is scarce.

I don't have that problem with good books, so don't put me in the "modern civilization problems" drawer.

Many years ago (10+), back when printed media was still relevant in IT, I used to work for a local computer magazine whose senior editor was this witty, funny guy with a sharp mind - an unlikely case of a bohemian, post-modernist poet actually managing to do serious journalism. On tech topics no less.

With this being printed media, "long-form" was more or less the norm for the more in-depth article, and space requirements were very strenuous: you had exactly this much space to fill, no more, no less [1].

But we were explicitly encouraged to choose topics for which "this much space" was meaningful (for those of my colleagues who didn't get to choose their topics, like the hardware folks who had to write about whatever was happening, the choice of topic and assigned space went hand in hand). Sometimes, I'd choose to cover two or three things in the space that was given to me in order to avoid writing pretentious equivalents to Lorem ipsum so as to fill in the page.

I fondly remember the stern, to-the-point feedback that we'd get from our senior editor. A draft of this article would have probably received a feedback like "twice longer than it needs to be. Make it shorter, send me pics."

The gist was that there was no such thing as "long-" or "shortform". What you wanted was exactly-as-long-as-it-needs-to-be-form. Some points require many words to convey. Some don't. It's being selective in your verbalization that draws the line between eloquence and hypergraphia. The entire "I am an optimist" section is an unfortunate example of that.

1. Most of us weren't exactly experienced journalists though, so filling "this much space" was often achieved with a lot of help from the heroic DTP team, which basically survived on coffee during the last week of an edition.

My father once described Malcolm Gladwell as "that man who writes books that should be essays". I think that also sums up my feelings about this.

A particular bugbear of mine is when a non-fiction article starts by describing the weather or somesuch. If the opening line is "It was a warm summer's day when Joshua first..." then I just give up then and there.

There's no glory in padding.

Was it padding? In ASOIAF the description of the scene is one of the only hints George R.R. Martin gives us of when a chapter happens. The moon and a comet provide a number of time references in the books.

> If modern writers have such disrespect for their audience

As opposed to whom, paid-by-the-word Dickens and his amazing menagerie of circumlocutions? ;-)

Perhaps, but the further back you go, the starker the shift in reading habits becomes. I skimmed this article in 5 minutes and probably won't remember it tomorrow. Compare two centuries ago, when the only books most people had were the Bible and Milton, and they memorized every word. Or three centuries before that, when the people who could read might have to travel across Europe to read a particular book, and might commit each page to a memory palace.


>>Older, serious, and timeless literature requires deep concentration because the authors use their thousands of words to express deep pathos that can't be trivialised. It takes practice to commit oneself to a book like that for long enough to get into a flow wherein it can be understood and appreciated.

Literature that must be studied to be understood, that must be decoded, that the author spent years on, cramming endless meaning into every last sentence...

This is not fun to read and never has been, even before the age of digital distraction. I don't aspire to read 'great works' that can only be decrypted if you have a degree in literature, in fact I don't think that sort of literature is objectively any good at all - it self-limits, it speaks only to the cognoscenti, and misses out on speaking to everyone else.

I disagree. If there is one thing that is effectively endless is books to read. If you read one book per week for you entire life you would barely scratch the surface. This means that there is an incredible variety of books ranging from the fun entertaining page-turners those books that you "need a degree" to understand.

The thing is, just because a book has a higher entry barrier (and a higher payoff) doesn't mean that it is objectively bad because it doesn't appeal to everyone. Maybe it's not for you, but it can certainly be appealing to many people who enjoy delving into a book and analysing if and so on. I don't have an English degree so I probably won't be arsed to put it the effort to read Finnegans Wake or whatever. But I certainly enjoy reading and analysing boss with more depth than DaVinci's Code.

The same thing happens with games. Maybe you have no interest learning chess, and prefer to play Angry Birds because it gives instant payoff with little effort. And that's fine. But it doesn't mean that chess is "objectively inferior" because there is depth to it enough to study full-time for a lifetime. Same thing happens with music, and any art form, I guess.

We shall have to agree to disagree then.

Literary analysis doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. The enjoyable part of the reading experience for me is engaging with the picture it paints, with the world it posits and the characters it places within it. I certainly enjoy reading books with more depth that The DaVinci Code, but I can think of little that would interrupt my enjoyment of reading more than stepping back and analysing 'clever' sentence structures.

I occasionally enjoy strategic board-games, in order to understand the emergent rules of play that come from the board and given rules. That said I have never really bothered with chess. I don't think chess is objectively inferior to other games though, I don't think the two are equivalent. Literature with deliberate, designed density of meaning comes across as intentional obfuscation rather than simple complexity.

You make valid and understandable points, I think, but I'd still like to expose my point of view, as I read mostly "classics", interrupted by the occasional piece of non-fic.

I'm not really into stopping my reading to take notes and analyze sentence structures either. However, I deeply enjoy it when the author uses fiction to express complex ideas about society, philosophy and human life in general. I enjoy that I can feel these themes happen through the character development, and the author's thesis come though as the plot advances.

For some especially heavy reads though, this might not happen so organically and that's when it stops feeling like enjoying a good read, and feels more like trying to understand Kant, sentence by sentence. I don't think at this point in my life I'd enjoy Joyce much, either (though I've heard Portrait is somewhat more accessible).

However I do find that the more I read, the more enjoyable I find reading novels with complex themes and such. Practice, I guess, and I find it very rewarding. Just start with something that's not too hard and go from there.

I just can't remember where, but a couple weeks ago I read an editorial in a paper that was about how, historically, fiction has been so much better at expressing "subversive" ideas and bringing them out in the culture. Just think about the thinkers of the French Revolution.

That's why I enjoy good fiction :)

I don't think we're all that far off from each other in the end, I probably just have a higher tolerance for trashy sci-fi than you do!

Complexity is not synonym with intentional or unnecessary obfuscation. The latter is just a silly way to create needless barriers to the understanding of the work.

I'd like to say that I can't speak much for books. Like I said I don't read heavy classics nor do I spend dozens of hours analysing a text, but I sometimes do with music. Part of the pleasure I get from listening to classical music is from the aesthetic beauty and pleasantness of the sound, but a larger part is perhaps from re-listening to it and analysing it and discovering new things and meaning in the music. I have pieces that I have listened probably over 50 times, and still I can find new intricacies, or read an analysis that calls my attention to details I have missed, or simply just marvel at the ingenuity of some passage, etc.

For me, analysis isn't a boring procedure that sucks the fun out of art. Much to the contrary, it enhances and deepens my experience beyond what I would have by reading the book/listening to the piece and then putting it aside forever.

>> Complexity is not synonym with intentional or unnecessary obfuscation.

Certainly not, no, which is why I see a difference between the complexity of chess and the obfuscation that goes into some high literature.

I am not a huge fan of Medium.com, it has way too less content displayed per screen, way too huge font and one has to scroll all the way down to read anything, it is annoying , not to mention the huge images everwhere, which gives the images more importance than the content.

Agreed. Are there any websites that you really like the presentation?

I had read Sam Altman's blog on postheaven, I really liked that blogging platform, it is clean with more focus on the text content rather than the pictures.

I completely agree with your point. It seems to me that a vast number of authors/writers (especially apparent in journalists here in Norway) fetishize their own voice, and become so enamored with it that they neglect their actual subject matter.

I don't want to read your irrelevant anectode or clever ironic remark, I want to learn about the subject you promised me.

In an age where communication platforms are so readily abundant and (relatively) easily accessible, people aren't forced to write economically. Contrast this with even fifty years ago when in order to get more than a handful of people to read your work, it had to be published in some way.

out of curiosity (seriously) which were the 5?

Ha! To be honest, I now can't even remember - and it's only a day later, so perhaps the true answer is zero.

There was some stuff about speed of dopamine response that was interesting. It aligned with some stuff about dopamine addiction by a guy called Charles Faraone who I'd been reading on Quora.

I did find his proposed solution interesting, but I'd have preferred it stated up front and then explained, rather than left until the final paragraphs by which point I'd lost attentiveness anyway.

I've read over 500 fiction books and 2000+ non-fiction. I've read many of the big thick classics like Moby Dick, War & Peace, Infinite Jest. I've kept a spreadsheet of all the books I've read somewhat like Art Garfunkel[1] (of Simon & Garfunkel music duo).

I've also read Nick Carr's "The Shallows"[2] and other authors about about the web's effect on attention span, distractions, etc.

With all that said, I'm not convinced that people "should" read long form books. I read all those books because I personally enjoyed it. I just can't say with confidence that others should do the same or they will be "missing out" on some unquantifiable intellectual nirvana.

I also enjoy getting lost in Wikipedia articles and jumping around hyperlinks without fully finishing the wiki article I was reading. (Wiki articles are not ever "finished" anyway so there's no guilt trip in leaving the page to head down another rabbit hole.)

15 years ago, I read a dozen of C++ books cover-to-cover. Can someone today get similar levels of knowledge jumping around quality blog posts and watching youtube videos? I think so. I don't hold my traditional reading method for C++ to be superior; it's simply what I did before the internet was available in 1995. I certainly did not learn Golang by reading a book cover-to-cover.

Books certainly have benefits but I think they are overstated in relation to non-book forms of consuming words.



Whenever I real long-form books, my mind will occasionally wander into other areas, while my eyes keep reading on. I'll have to continually go back and re-read what I feel like I've just read. This isn't just an internet-fueled lack of attention, it's how I've always read, and how I image most people read most of the time.

The difference is with a website, you can go investigate your immediate thoughts rather than committing to the re-read. It is lazier, maybe. It's probably not great if you want to learn something in depth and stay focused on it for long periods of time.

"I'll have to continually go back and re-read what I feel like I've just read."

This is me.

"and how I image most people read most of the time."

I wish I knew if this were true. I've always felt that I have some sort of "disorder" or some form of ADHD or something that causes my mind to wander anytime I try to read a book. I'm a terribly slow reader for this reason (at least when it comes to books -- internet articles, for some reason, don't seem to have this same effect on me), and as a result, I've not read too many books at all. I mostly get my information in smaller bursts.

Come to think of it, whenever I see what I consider super long articles posted on HN, and a ton of discussion about how great the article was, I feel terribly inadequate that I can't read said article in less than an hour (or more). Short articles I'm fine with, it's the longer ones -- and books -- that I struggle with.

And it's certainly not the result of any "conditioning" from reading short internet articles all the time -- I've been like this since long before the era of blogs and HN.

Would love it if someone could shed some light on this.

Not for me, when I read I get lost in the book and it gets dark outside, the cats come and sleep on me, the street lights go on and I look up at 10pm and I've read half a novel.

It's a sense of peace I get from few other things in life.

There's something awesome about the way you really get "into the universe" when you spend hours reading a book or binge watching a tv show. All of the events and characters are fresh in your brain and you see the connections you may have missed if there was a night's sleep and a day's work in between.

This, or even watching a slow paced movie (the kind more common before 1990) is incredibly refreshing break from the modern distraction filled world.

As I've gotten older and have less free time and there's so much more content out there, one practice I've come to accept is reading the wikipedia page and plot synopsis for a book/movie before starting watching something. In the same way I read HN comments before deciding whether to read the original article often times. Before wikipedia I would read the last chapters of books first.

I'm more worried about my time being spoiled than the plot being spoiled, and after all a good movie/book is even better the 2nd time around. This has allowed me to commit to watching or reading things I never would have before as I'd get bored (read: worried this is a waste of my time) 10 minutes into a slow moving movie.

But how does just reading the synopsis indicate if something is any good? Wouldn't you be better just looking at the IMDB score? Or are you looking out to avoid things with 'dumb' endings?

Funny you should say that I watched terminator the other day in prep for the new one, forgotten how slow relatively action films used to be, I kinda miss that sometimes.

I love a well paced but slow film... some of them feel almost dream like, like poetry.

You have summarized most of my experiences and observations of my reading habits.

I have tried reading long novels and I have rarely been able to read them efficiently with concentration the whole way, at first I would well up with a lot of self hatred when my friends could read the same books in lesser amounts of time, remembering a lot of interesting details and hold very insightful discussions about it later. I blamed myself for not having better concentration, for feigning interest in books and hundred other accusation that were only partly true.

But, I persevered and found that I could read short texts, remember them pretty well, think about them for some days and largely absorb the idea. I changed my reading habits. I started reading short stories, essays, academic papers and smaller technical books, but providing a lot of to time to reflect upon the material just read.

I stopped focusing on the book count and purely on maximizing the amount of impact produced by reading something.

I think there are two reasons I read. 1, i need to know something. This may be a pressing work concern, or just a genuine interest in something. A few weeks ago i read 40 pages on cocktail ice. 2, the author is really compelling. I've read quite a few novels that are just hard to put down.

I'd bet, you have no trouble with those cases. You may rifle through tech documentation till you read the paragraph or 10 that are relevant to your problem, but that part you can just breeze through. Because it matters I'd also bet there are a few books or stories you have no trouble with because the author has really drawn you in, and you care about what's happening, and it matters. If not, take a look at hemmingway or maybe chuck palahniuk. they both put a lot of effort into making short powerful stories. Survivor or invisible monsters might be worth a read.

Other stuff, well, my tolerance really depends on my level of curiosity. If i'm feeling particularly curious, i can read some pretty boring stuff, but not for a long time. Sometimes deep insights are hidden in boring words.

Anyway, you're not weird. People have different defaults. Most stuff i kind of grind through, and don't really soak up the full meaning. On the other hand, most writing is pretty bad, and isn't really worth that much effort. The vast majority of stuff is just rehashed restated rewritten copies of copies that contain enough essence of the original to give you a hint of that dopamine rush.

> > "and how I image most people read most of the time."

> I wish I knew if this were true.

I think it really depends on the book (or part of the book) you are reading. Often the start of a book will be designed to grab your attention, but its possible to lose interest part way through the book, or have to concentrate harder to finish chapters.

Its common - my high school English teacher told us about it way back many years ago.

The traditional three act structure means books and movies often start with plenty of action, pause the pace in the middle, where characters mostly talk or walk or think or remember rather than doing action stuff, and build up to a big climax with faster pacing at the end.

It's a very popular structure. But now that everyone seems to have ADHD, it's being replaced by episodic structures which end each chapter with a cliff hanger.

Episodic structure isn't new, but quite a few savvy writers have discovered it's a better fit for ebook publishing than traditional long form.

Look into nootropics.

Typical mind fallacy is thinking that the way your mind operates is automatically how everyone's mind operate.

Well, I'm no freak of nature, either.

Wouldn't say it's about being 'normal' or a 'freak.'

If you haven't cultivated the habit of reading, it's not effortless (like most things). When things aren't effortless (or close thereto), its easy for an undisciplined mind to wander.

If it's something that you value, you will do it enough that it becomes effortless. Perhaps the author missed that point?

Though your point about cultivating the discipline is applicable, not all brains process data the same way, and its possible the posters habit is a factor of biology not effort.

This sometimes happens to me if I am not in the mood, need to be doing something else, or if the book is badly written. Some text books need to be read with concentration.

But if something is good, it is more like a trance - I'll 'come to' hours later and need to be prodded with a stick if you want to interrupt me.

That definitely sounds like a very mild but treatable form of language disorder to me. It might be too mild to be of interest to language disorder clinicians, but maybe you could try 'treat' yourself by setting up a long-term plan of progressively 'harder'/longer reading materials. Check out for instance Pearson's Developmental English series [1]. Might seem arduous and pointless; but if it increases your ability to read long-form comfortably, it could make an enormous difference to your life.

[1] http://www.pearsonhighered.com/educator/course/Advanced-Read...

"Whenever I real long-form books, my mind will occasionally wander into other areas, while my eyes keep reading on. I'll have to continually go back and re-read what I feel like I've just read."

When that happens to me while reading a book often enough I decide the text is not for me and move to another book.

"The difference is with a website, you can go investigate your immediate thoughts rather than committing to the re-read. "

Funny, I would describe my most engaging readings of a book precisely by this sort of associative experience (unless it's fiction... which I don't actually read that much anymore).

"I'll have to continually go back and re-read what I feel like I've just read. "

This happens to me sometimes, but its rare and usually means I'm tired or not interested in the subject matter. If I'm interested I'm glued to the page and won't break concentration for hours.

Not saying you have it, but this is a common symptom of ADHD.

I'd recommend the book Driven to Distraction, it's pretty informative!

> I'll have to continually go back and re-read what I feel like I've just read.

That's a feature, not a bug.

Limit your first reading to basic understanding of the plot and setting; ignore exploration of "deeper" themes until subsequent re-reads.

What I'm saying is that my eyes simply scan the words while I think of other things. There's no comprehension there, I'm just losing my place in the text.

> 15 years ago, I read a dozen of C++ books cover-to-cover. Can someone today get similar levels of knowledge jumping around quality blog posts and watching youtube videos?

Not saying it's better or worse, but I'm willing to say that the understanding you'll get from blogs is going to be be different than from a long-form book.

Books get the benefit of knowing where they left off one chapter, and picking it up on the next. Unless you're reading a long series of posts on the same blog (which, in the limit, approaches reading a book), reading blog posts will lack that continuity, and I find them inferior for building up a basic understanding of a topic. What blogs do really well, IMO, is for teaching you well-isolated techniques, or other such limited-scope ideas.

Your experience with C++ And Golang are in no way, shape or form comparable. If you've been doing C++ for 15 years, Golang is a comparatively small learning curve. You just need to pick up on a few syntactic differences and you'll be at that basic level of competence that books will give you, and you're ready for the single-topic, specialized learning that you'll get from blogs.

Every single programming book in the world after you've read the first one:

Chapter 1: Simple types (um, could have done this in a page)

Chapter 2: Complex types (this too)

Chapter 3: How you can compile from the command line (even though no-one in their sane mind does this in this language)

Chapter 4: Inheritance (oh god, please stop)

Chapter 5: Conditional statements (no, for the love of god stop)

Chapter 6: Loops (right, I'm skipping some chapters)

Chapter 15: Trangonian Complex Pulsar boofs and why you should use them for everything (even though no-one does and never will because they suck)

Chapter 16: How to make a program (this chapter should have been the entire book)

Chapter 17: How to debug (lots of hand waving and no actual details on how to actually debug the program)

Appendix: Listing every word used in the book in alphabetical order and on which pages each was mentioned.

CD: With a 3 year out of date IDE, possibly abandoned, and if you're really lucky some fairly benign malware

"Learn x in -1 days" books follow that pattern, but original ones?

Not this one: http://www.stroustrup.com/3rd_tbl.html Or this one: http://www.forth.com/starting-forth/index.html Or this one: https://mitpress.mit.edu/sicp/toc/toc.html Or this one: http://jonaquino.blogspot.com/2010/04/table-of-contents-for-...

In general, once you know a few different languages and want to learn a new one, read the language spec or a good book on the language.

Good blog posts are an option, too, but those are hard to discriminate from bad ones, and run a greater risk of being incomplete (hm: here's and idea for a new product: a service that ranks blogs for accuracy, completeness and timeliness (K&R C is accurate and complete, but if you want to learn C now, it shouldn't be the only thing you read, and possibly not even a thing you read))

It was a joke.

>Appendix: Listing every word used in the book in alphabetical order and on which pages each was mentioned.

That's the Index. The Appendix is where they list FTP and web sites that are long defunct, sample code for interfacing with a discontinued piece of hardware, and of course an ASCII table.

It looks like you only read Deitel & Deitel books.

who would pay $25.99-$54.99 for any of these ten pages?

http://learnxinyminutes.com/ - the Java article is 1500 words :) and, I gather, sufficient to get started.

Back in the day that was every dèlphi book to a tee.

I'm with you 100% on this. To me blog posts and internet articles are really good for getting insight into a particular issue you're currently having, or a to be exposed to a bit of interesting trivia. I find books to be far superior if you want to maximize your knowledge ingestion for a given set of time.

I once tried to give somebody my C# 4.0 In a Nutshell book when I upgrade to the 5.0 book. "Why do I need that, I can just look at MSDN?". Hrmm.

"Why do I need that, I can just look at MSDN?"

MSDN has all of it, everything that should be documented. It is easy to get lost, not knowing what and how much should be taken first. The value of a book in such case is to have its author as your guide (as in a tutorial, if you will, but a little bit more than that).

I cannot count what I have read. Growing up (6-12) I had no access to digital tech, apart from a BBC micro, no television, no comics, no games other than chess. The only available recreational activities were reading or spending time outdoors.

I did both in droves, often simultaneously, and it was bad enough that I'd often be caught reading a book under my desk in class. Mind, the school library only comprised "literature" - no kids books, Harry Potter was a gleam in jk's eye, it was Tolstoy, Homer, Proust, Euripides, Dickens, whatever a nine year old is supposed to read.

Come to think of it, reading in class was only punishable by the book being confiscated until the end of class. I remember in my miserable year of middle school in the U.S. being caught reading, and they not only confiscated the book but suspended me. It was a serious infraction in their eyes, as you were only allowed to read pre-approved books on school grounds.

Perhaps people don't read because educational systems for the most part actively discourage it. Initiatives which focus on getting kids to read more tend to be about appearances and metrics, not kids reading. They also tend to turn reading into this exotic, "other", task/chore in the minds of most due to shit like "you must read 500 words tonight" - I remember in 7th grade kids bursting into tears in response to that sort of thing, so well had their aversion therapy taken root.

Me, I'd ban kids from all except the most primitive digital technology until their teens, as well as all other sources of manufactured "fun". Reading is fun, but we have forgotten this. Now it has to be loud and sparkling and expensive, or it's just not fun for our crack-addled minds.

I remember along with one or two others being allowed to read on my own as we where so much faster/better at reading than our peers. I had a raeding age of 20 at 10

Thease days we would be forced into the Ofstead approved learning outcomes - or alternatively gotten rid of to game the schools figures

> you were only allowed to read pre-approved books on school grounds.

Wow, that is just horrendous.

Yeah. Spending a year in the US education system was an eye-opener. Sciath (Science/Math) and Soclish (Social Studies & English) were the two topics. "Elite" school, 7th grade. Mindbleached kids, conformity was king, everything, everything resulted in hysterical breathlessness. Couldn't get out of there soon enough.

They really didn't know what to do with an 11 year old who would sit there reading Aristotle in ancient greek under the desk - apart from suspend me, repeatedly, and breathing a big sigh of relief when I told them to stick it and went back to school in the UK - they admitted that they would have expelled me had I not left... which reflects the American approach to problem solving - if you can't figure it out, pretend it doesn't exist.

When I was an introverted teenager I read 500 books in one summer. My mom tracked them all in a notebook because she wanted to know just what exactly I was reading.

To this day I have zero difficulty finishing a book. My problem has always been stopping. I'm practically clinically unable to disengage from a book once I've started. Enough so that I have to meter my reading to prevent myself from disappearing for months on end. Not even the internet has made a dent in that. In some ways I wish I were a little more like the author. It would be nice to not feel a little worried when I start a book that I'll go so deep I'll miss something in the world around me.

Yep, I had a similar problem and had to deliberately not read more fiction because I had to study engineering and stuff. Now, with the busyness of life, its a lot easier though. Like you said, the introversion may have made it more attractive to just escape into the excitement of a fiction book.

Umm, 500 books in one summer? Yeah right! What kind of books? Were they long? That's over 4 books per DAY! I don't think so.

It is quite possible to read 500 books over 100 days as a secluded teenager if one is reading mostly 200-300 page books and most of the books do not require perfect attention to detail.

A proficient reader can easily read 2 pages a minute, so lets say 1200 pages/2=600 minutes, so 10 hours a day. Seems quite doable for a bored teenager without a computer/tablet/phone/outside activity.

I don't think I ever did more than 3 books a day, but still possible to do what OP said.

I think many/most of us has have read a page turner in one late night session.

Well, I guess you are right. I doubt the speed would be consistent over 10 hours but I can easily imagine a bored teenager could sleep 7-8 hours and read most of the rest of the time. So the number drops from maybe about 500 words per minute to something less than that. And that still allows some great comprehension.

The sizes varied but most of them were fiction. One day I read seven in an evening. It's not that special. It was the result of a highly insular life spent not doing much other than read.

Seven books in one evening? I cannot fathom such a thing. Were these "books" of the comic variety perchance?

Nope, I believe they were teen mystery books probably about 100-200 pages long. I read pretty fast.

Wish I could read that fast...

I dunno, I think 4 books per day is do-able if the books are shorter and are an easy read. When I was about 13 I read Red Storm Rising from cover to cover in a day. I checked Amazon just now and it's 830 pages in paperback form.

Years later I spent hours getting through the first few chapters of Godel, Escher, Bach. It was such slow going, and required so much thought, that I ultimately gave up.

why, because you haven't done it? your tone certainly doesn't convince me you have much else as a point.

Well, no, I don't have MUCH else as a point. If you're reading that fast you probably not going to read as well. Obviously we're not going for perfect retention here but still. That's a ridiculous amount of text to go through in such a short span of time. I feel like at that point it starts being less about reading and more about adding numbers to a list. But I digress.

No, I was a huge bookworm as a kid and I read almost as much as that in the summers. It wasn't about racking up points, just pleasure reading. When you are reading for fun and not for learning, you can go for a lot longer without getting tired and skip all the boring parts. It's not that much different than burning through an entire season of your favorite TV show, or through an entire single-player game, in a weekend.

You're assuming zaphar reads/comprehends the same way you do. I can't read that fast period, and if i'm reading fast don't comprehend as much, but I have first hand experience with how good zaphar's comprehension is when he is reading very fast. It has some to do with how deeply he concentrates by nature, something he was born with that I wasn't.

"15 years ago, I read a dozen of C++ books cover-to-cover. Can someone today get similar levels of knowledge jumping around quality blog posts and watching youtube videos?"

That's a real problem. You can't write and sell a book for a fast-changing language. (Go may have stabilized enough for a printed book. A useful Rust book is impossible right now.) A writer and publisher can't invest the time and effort to produce a book that will be obsolete when it ships.

This is why it would be neat to have the book in an online format that can be updated from time to time. Something more than a blog, manual or wikipedia. That's in case one wants a book NOW and wouldn't want to wait until the language stabilizes.

Check out O'Reilly early release books.

Over the years, I've found myself naturally reading fewer and fewer technology-specific books but more and more books on concepts and fundamentals. I find that the internet has the most up-to-date and well-organized information about specific technologies, but that the "classics" do a much better job of motivating and explaining deeper material than typical internet resources.

Thanks for the trivia about Art Garfunkel! I do much the same thing on Goodreads, but I started fairly recently, so I'm sure I'm missing a few.

It depends.

People used to read 500 page books on compilers. Would you read an equivalently long blog article on compilers?

With the Internet we've gained the ability to more readily acquire knowledge in little bits at a time, over a lot of areas. But most of us are incapable of reading a really huge article in depth. And thus we get more shallow levels of understanding, but across a wider range of topics. This explains a lot of arguments on the internet.

> But most of us are incapable of reading a really huge article in depth

It's not a "capability", it's a skill. The problem is it's becoming less and less important in everyday life for most people, which in turn makes them abandon its training. As with most skills, without training you become worse at it with time.

I'm not sure if that's good or bad thing that you can now learn without having mastered this skill. Is the understanding you gain via lots of small chunks of knowledge worse than the one you get from reading The Dragon Book? I don't know; looks like a good topic for research in cognitive science.

Personally I do like reading long and involved texts, but I too learned to enjoy it before the Internet became popular. I don't know if I'd be equally interested in such texts had I started just a few years later.

You mean, have I read these books when the entire thing is put on the web? Yes.

> With all that said, I'm not convinced that people "should" read long form books. I read all those books because I personally enjoyed it. I just can't say with confidence that others should do the same or they will be "missing out" on some unquantifiable intellectual nirvana.

Isn't the point is that the author of the article actually does enjoy reading books. And feels it's helpful for him personally? And that despite that he'd not managed to read in a satisfying manner for years; because he'd let him get to "addicted" to short term distractions?

I feel with the author; I still manage to read more than five books, but there's weeks were that's not the case. To a large degree because I let myself get distracted in a similar way. Without it being beneficial to myself or others.

When I was a teenager, I had time to read constantly. Now that I'm an adult, with a job that demands long hours, a wife and kid, and responsibilities, my entire day is blocked out hour-by-hour in the calendar. I simply have no time to pour through a 1,000 word article let alone a 500 page book. I don't even watch movies anymore. It's quicker to just head to Wikipedia and get the gist of it. Quite honestly with 90% of media out there today, the 2 sentence summary is enough.

>With all that said, I'm not convinced that people "should" read long form books. I read all those books because I personally enjoyed it. I just can't say with confidence that others should do the same or they will be "missing out" on some unquantifiable intellectual nirvana.

This "unquantifiable intellectual nirvana" was used to be called "civilization".

You won't get very many perspectives from pre-1995 without reading books, though.

I'm honestly a little surprised at some of the comments here. I thought most people on here would agree that many of us do suffer from this. I mean, how many of you actually read through the entire article, WITHOUT checking your email, or flipping to twitter/fb to tell the world about this good article you just found? I had to really force myself to read the entire article first, and not give in to that urge to get a hit of dopamine. But of course, YMMV.

I think the ability to concentrate and focus on a single task is going to become more and more useful, because it is so easy to give in to that temptation to flip away, just for a quick moment. I've been working on practicing mindfulness through meditation, and have thought of reading a book as a form of meditation (nice to see the author allude to that a little).

So your TL;DR: good article, read more books, re-learn how to focus on single tasking.

I'm frequently disappointed when I do finish a web-published article to the point where I don't think there's anything wrong with skipping though most of them.

Most of them are poorly written or written in a way to make money.

That is

* clickbait titles when the bulk of the information in the article could be summarized in the title instead

* lack of introduction / thesis / abstract at the beginning summarizing or outlining the actual content

* meandering content with no clear overarching goal

* content padding – lots of words addling little information

So why should I feel bad about not finishing things I think aren't worth finishing?

To add some followup thoughts, I am often incredibly frustrated when I have to spend 5 minutes reading two thousand words to find information that could have been contained in fifty.

In a similar vein are youtube howto videos which spend 2+ minutes with bad animations, awkward greetings, begging for likes, and rambling irrelevant introductions followed by the actually useful 15 seconds of content.

I have similar problems with university lectures, textbooks, and, professionally, finding any information in documentation. It might be specific to my style of brain wiring; I find low-information-density media to be at times almost debilitatingly frustrating.

I agree here. I began to read the article but the format completely deterred me from finishing it. I assume the format was on purpose to prevent it from becoming the very thing that it was saying the people have a hard time reading. But in the end, at least for me, I had a harder time reading the choppy, repetitive wording than a well thought out set of paragraphs. I have read many books and also started many and never picked them back up. There is no reason to force yourself to read something that does not capture your attention.

> I had to really force myself to read the entire article first, and not give in to that urge to get a hit of dopamine.

It's actually reverse for many of us who like to read. If i read an interesting article, i just cannot get over it. The stimulation from this is so strong, that its difficult to concentrate on anything else. Mostly after the first read, i will think for a while on it and then re-read it again. More slowly this time. I keep the tab open and will come back again to re-read. Sometimes the thought provoked by the articles lingers for days and i have to write it down somewhere where to get over it.

> how many of you actually read through the entire article, WITHOUT checking your email, or flipping to twitter/fb to tell the world about this good article you just found?

Err, I don't know, but I was very surprised by reading all the comments (and original blogpost) implying you can't handle reading a 3000ish signs post without any interruption.

Of course, I see that we are "jumping" frequently, like every ten minutes or so, to find "brain fresh-air"; but if you have that much trouble to focus on a so simple thing like reading a simple article, maybe there is something more serious that you have to check without waiting.

(…honestly, I don't know how you can work in any environment with such an extreme rythm of "brain jumping".)

After just reading a book cover to cover yesterday, I'm not really impressed by the article, I read a bit and then all these large bold and italic things started popping out of the text haphazardly in the middle of my flow.

From there i skimmed a bit and stopped realising it was a boring article, if not a little bit whiny.

In other words I can't really blame him for jumping to twitter midway through the author obviously wanted to break the text up in such a way it was easy or encouraged to do so.

I read it, start to finish, on the can.

It probably helped that the men's room at work seems to be some kind of Faraday cage, so whatever is cached in your mobile browser when you lock the cubicle door is your reading for the duration.

>> I mean, how many of you actually read through the entire article, WITHOUT checking your email, or flipping to twitter/fb to tell the world about this good article you just found?

Like you it really took me some effort, I had to force myself to stay engaged, not skip over whole paragraphs and not flip to something else.

But I got there!

"I mean, how many of you actually read through the entire article, WITHOUT checking your email, or flipping to twitter/fb to tell the world about this good article you just found?"

This is precisely the reason I don't actively participate in Twitter or Facebook :)

> Last year, I read four books.

Since January I read +-25 books. It's not necessarily a good thing. Every book, no matter how short, is a commitment. It requires time and effort you could spend in other, more productive things. As a matter of fact, reading is how I procrastinate.

The road to mediocrity is paved with good books: I've been reading quite a lot on entrepreneurship... let's say 300 hours worth of reading. I could have spent that time by testing ideas and hustling, but I lacked confidence. It was always "1 more book... and then I'll start doing it".

The author conflates two things that are only half related. This sentence is a big hint to why he's not reading books:

> "And it’s exhausting. I was usually asleep halfway through sentence number five."

Reading books isn't exhausting, you can read books 16 hours per day. If you fall asleep after reading 5 lines, that means you are dead tired and shouldn't even have opened that book in the first place.

And maybe the reason why you're too weak to keep yourself from checking your information sources every 5 seconds during all the other activities you (or your boss) care about is because you're tired during the day as well.

The author suggests 5 solutions, I think that's a bit extreme. If you just do 3 and 4, you'll get more sleep and everything will probably be better. Coincidentally that advice is what you'll find everywhere for sleep related issues: "No computers 2 hours before sleep".

All my life, within a chapter of text, I'm either falling asleep or lulling at the cusp of it.

Moving my body or locations temporarily wards it off like a snooze button, but the struggle also keeps me from losing myself in a novel. To this day, if you fast-forwarded a video of me reading on my couch, I'd like look a fish flopping out of water to stay awake until the next chapter.

My best solution so far has been to read more in the morning with my coffee before I begin my work, which also happens to be a good time to read in general: it's before the barrage.

What if you read while standing? Do you have trouble doing other activities while lying down, like using a computer?

I read a lot. I just happen to do most of my reading online.

I don't follow the notion that what we read online by default has less value than what is available to us in books. I have learned a lot from what I've read online, whether it's long form articles, Wikipedia articles, piecemeal submissions that make up online forum/community sites or even IRC logs.

The mere fact that something is available in book form is not a guarantee of it's accuracy nor a guarantee of the author's credibility.

I don't think the author is arguing that that books are more accurate or more credible than other forms of writing. What the author is arguing is that books provide a different sort of experience than those other forms of writing.

Or more particularly how the online stuff can surpass the dead tree stuff. I have no desire to go to a bookstore and read "acclaimed authors" works, because once you dig enough you find the sites and the communities of authors that are constantly producing fantastic longform fiction for any genre out of passion. I am also finding (and now backing) a lot of them on things like patreon too.

Its a new medium. Its awkward to talk to some clients I have who do read the old way - because they will never hear of the authors I read, because I read hundreds of "amateur" authors who produce millions of words a year. And of course, online literature is 95% swill and 5% silver lining. It means you do get hit with a lot of underwhelming crap. But you still have the same thing predominantly happen in normal bookstores - maybe the ratio is better, but you still have to find your authors and interests all the same. And something about clicking through pages of writing online seems to beat pouring over isles of heavy tomes seeking satisfaction.

I've memorized a relevant XKCD just for this occasion, because it comes up so much: http://xkcd.com/1227/

> "Intellectual laziness and the hurry of the age have produced a craving for literary nips. The torbid brain... has grown too weak for sustained thought." – Israel Zangwill, The Bachelor's Club, 1891

I highly, highly recommend everybody read "The Information: How The Internet Gets Inside Us" by Adam Gopnik: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/14/the-information

It points out how this 'Why can't we X anymore", "in the past it was better", "the future will be amazing", "the future will be horrible", and "everything is kinda the same" perspectives have been repeated, remixed, rehashed over and over again.

While it does appear that the perspective you're talking about has been repeated over and over, it's important to recognise that it's a perspective which applies to whatever time in which it was held. Therefore, it's relative. Maybe the past _was_ amazing and wonderful, and perhaps _that_ past's past was even _more_ amazing and wonderful. It's possible things _are_ getting worse and worse all the time, only society has failed to heed the "warning" of the doomsayers, leading even greater decline in "wonderfulness".

Except most of the activities that are cited as "dying" in the late 1800s are still alive and well. Long walks? Check, still here and valued. Letter writing? Not as prevalent, but still done. Conversation? Still existent, despite naysayers in the 1800s and people claiming text is the death of conversation.

I think the difference people are noticing is that as some things begin to have an alternative, the minority (or majority) that would prefer said alternative can now express that desire where it was not possible before. Take the quote about sitting down and enjoying long meals. Maybe that's not everybody's cup of tea, but now it's a lot easier to get a quick meal on the go and some people prefer it.

And 2000 years ago people decried writing because it weakened memory.

Its a great point, but the 1800s was a time of incredible technological change. I can completely understand that they were going through these same pressures of new information, a rapidly changing world and the need to keep on top of things and move quickly to make that fortune.

If anything the pace of change has slowed down. But the news and tidbit delivery system is highly optimized.

I read maybe one book in the last half of 2014. I wasn't proud of this number. Then I took a trip with only a kindle, no hotspots.

I read nine books in two weeks.

I felt so energized and accomplished. I vowed to keep it up when I returned to a world with internet.

I have not.

An Internet fast is an interesting experience. People might drop off the grid for backpacking trips, or trips to monasteries... I think it's legitimate to drop off and take anything you think might be your hobby but for internet. Take books, like I did, or maybe a typewriter. Or a musical instrument. Canvases and paint. A sharp knife and some pieces of wood. Yarn. Give your mind some idle stretches, a few days without constant distraction. See what happens, you'll probably be amazed.

This man should talk for himself.

I am an avid reader. I am part of readers clubs and meetings. I don't see less people today there than 10 years ago, in fact I see way more(probably something to do with the economic crisis).

The world does not end because we can read online and distract ourselves. A person does not need this for distraction, in fact just a fly making noises around you or thinking on your partner-son-mother while looking at the wall is enough.

The same was said about TV decades ago, and radio before it, even about books when it became cheap centuries ago. The Quijote is a book about someone that reads instead of living and wants to live at the end of his life. At the time cheap books were a novelty because of the printing press, remember that before it it took a year to copy a single book.

I'm in your camp. I almost see "hand wringing about attention" as a meme, a common blogger's trope to stir up concern similar to a trashy evening news broadcast about "the new way teens are getting high."

Everyone who I knew liked to read while growing up still likes to read. Some people don't, and thats fine too. What annoys me is people who don't like to read, but feel like they should, and therefore go looking for a scapegoat. And something tells me that some people have struggled to read and felt inadequate about that throughout history.

Agreed! Have to be careful with the "we". I read a couple of books a week.

I've found the opposite, if you'll allow that eBooks are real books. To me, it's a golden age of books - with self publishing and eBooks, there are more books coming out ever day than ever before. I personally read AT LEAST two books a week (usually not technical - I enjoy sci-fi). I've always been a avid reader, but generally had to re-read a lot (I have about 5k physical books, to support that habit). Theses days, I'm ALWAYS reading new books. The selection is amazing, a lot of the books are very good!

One reason I've observed is that the quality of printed text isn't necessarily that good. I can't not let go of a good book, I'm only bounded by the time of day and night: if I weren't, I'd read it on one sitting. Or an interesting textbook that I can't wait to get back to even if it's slow to read because it's just so interesting.

But there are lots of books that just aren't that good in comparison to really interesting articles on the internet. There are a even a lot more articles, so the reader must develop the skill of skimming quickly and deciding early whether there's any meat in it. But good articles are really good and they're easy to find. Books that aren't bad and books that are just all right but not really, truly good can't simply compete: earlier they could because there was no alternative. But now there is.

Nothing can beat a good book but there's so many other things to read that are incredibly good too, so the partitioning of our reading time will simply change.

Reading takes all of your attention, all of it. I can't have a conversation while reading a book, I can't watch a movie while reading a book, you have to be ready to give everything to that book for whatever period of time you want to read it for.

I am watching Chopped, skimming articles like this one, I just stepped up mid-typing that last bit to help my wife with something and finally I'm programming. I was interrupted again after finishing that sentence.

Reading is a luxury.

I think the point is that attention is a luxury.

These days, the currency is attention. The amount of attention required for reading of any substance is very high, and with thousands of apps, sites, shows, brands, and everything else pulling at us in a way that's engineered to be ideally visceral and tailored to our animal impulses, the lack of attention left over is no surprise.

Hard to see problem with this behavior. It is the same reason we don't ride horses to work anymore - better stuff available.

We didn't read at all, then we read leaves, then we read scrolls, then we read books, now we read the internet. Books have been around for extremely small percentage of our species' span. Moreover before the internet, the general public showed more interest in reading up more current affairs/entertainment than traditional books. Newspapers and magazine numbers are still strong.

Frankly, I would rather have a race of people reading up on general knowledge and keep themselves aware than a race of people wasting time trying to read story books just to fit in. It is not that the books have been replaced. Better stuff has brutally shown that books were truly appealing to only a few. If, given chance, most people flea, it is a failed product.

>Hard to see problem with this behavior. It is the same reason we don't ride horses to work anymore - better stuff available.

Only in this case we abandoned cars for hoping along barefoot on one foot while wearing a diving suit...

>Frankly, I would rather have a race of people reading up on general knowledge and keep themselves aware than a race of people wasting time trying to read story books just to fit in.

We have that former thing, and its producing a race of people who have no understanding of anything substantial, be it politics, world affairs or arts, and jump from BS celebrity tweet to twerking videos.

Of course one can resort to the classic "People have always complained about new technologies and trends, hence there's no problem with them".

For one, "people always complained about new technologies" is not such an obvious and true fact -- how many people and how seriously complained is not measured, nor is their reasoning examing. We're just given some examples of people complaining for some new technology/trend, and are told that all those examples are of equal zero validity, just "get off of my line" kind of affairs).

Second, even if "people always complained about new technologies" that doesn't automatically mean that they were always wrong (nor is proof offered, besides "and yet, those technologies stayed with us and we now are ok with them" as if that proves anything qualitatively).

A more nuanced approach would have been to check whether something was indeed lost (a tradeoff) in adopting those technologies, something that we could maybe preserve if we adopted them with less abandon.

And in fact a lot of our subsequent behavior --which is usually ommited when glorifying technology-- points to that (e.g. the adoption of cars lead to huge cities built around driving like L.A., which we now find less than great. Or the city noises and environment led to a flight for the suburbs. Examples are numerous).

It's a skill. But unlike riding a bike, if you don't use it, you lose it. On the other hand, if you practice, it gets better.

I started keeping track of my reading in 2011. Here's my history:

    2011: 11 books     
    2012: 16 books     
    2013: 29 books     
    2014: 54 books     
    2015: 26 books (to date)
I did this while not significantly changing my lifestyle. How?

    1. I read to and from work. 45 min each way.   
    2. I read at lunch. 1 hr.  
    3. I chose reading instead of watching TV or playing video games.   
    4. I use eReaders, so I have dozens of books to read next.  
    5. I log my reading (obsessively?) on goodreads.com.
One thing I didn't do: I don't even try to read before bed. If I'm lucky, I get three pages read and then I'm nodding off.

"Why can't we read anymore?" I dunno. Maybe because _you_ aren't reading anymore.

Logging what you read is, oddly enough, a new idea for me. One I'll have to seriously consider doing. In 2003 I started college, and an exercise in a class I had we had to tell two truths and one falsehood and let the class guess the falsehood. I don't remember what the falsehood was or the other truth, but the truth one that everybody thought was the falsehood was that I had read over 2000 books.

I only know that I read that many because I owned that many books (and didn't own every book I ever read). I was 26 then, and reading since 5-6, so that's really only 10 books a year. The real number of books at that point might have been more like 3000 - but I did re-read a lot of the books I owned so maybe not.

Since this time last year, I've probably read 30+ books. Gotta love the Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.

10 books/yr x 20 years = 200, not 2,000.

Setting up a goodreads account is simplicity itself. And since it's owned by Amazon, you can import all your books with a click. There's also a bookmarklet that "Adds book to Goodreads" from the Amazon page.

Once you get used to logging progress and marking completed books, you will really see the pages and books mount up.

Oops, you are right. I'd say I hadn't had my coffee yet when I wrote that, but even that's not a good excuse. How embarassing. 100 books does seem right though, I thought the 10 seemed a little too light.

I set up an account yesterday and did like that Amazon import feature. I wish It imported all the books you read with Kindle Unlimited though. Thanks for the heads up with the bookmarklet, I'll check it out.

Last year, I read four books.

Last year, I read 25 books. And the year before, too. And the year before. Then I stopped reading this blog post.

The number of books is a weak benchmark, because I read books as thin as 100 pages up to 1,300 pages. I read blog posts that have 50 pages and some that have 140 characters.

Reading is enjoyable, but still a form of consumption. There are only so many ideas per week you can think a lot about and thus, you can read only so many books that really benefit your life and make you change your mindset.

This is an amazing article, if you get to the heart of it (though be warned, that requires actually reading it).

One of the amazing insights: new information is a drug. It causes a dopamine rush. The influx of all this new information, alerts, everything tugging at us every day is the new legal high, and we're all addicted, with thousands of external entities profiting off the act, dealing out notifications.

I highly recommend reading it fully!

This is a terrible article of the variety "I do something therefore everybody does something": typical mind fallacy on crack, nary an actual numerical statistic to be seen.

I mean, I could play anecdote wars (I read ridiculous numbers of books now I have FBReader on my phone) but that would be feeding the foolishness.


The author also seems to assume that everyone reads like he does, pausing to think about each word, "walking through another's thoughts." This is something I've given a bit of thought to recently, interestingly triggered by an episode of King of the Hill. I don't read in this manner and never really have.

I read fiction for the story. I want to know what happens next. I don't linger on a sentence trying to decipher the subtext. It was a great struggle for me to learn to read in that manner for English courses, and I never really enjoyed it.

Meanwhile today there are great TV shows with interesting things to say. The Wire, The Sopranos, and Black Mirror all have gotten me thinking, trying to see from another perspective much more easily than any book ever has.

I believe that our brains don't all work the same way. What the author gets out of reading, I get out of TV and movies and cannot get naturally out of books.

That is my take as well. Vague allusions to current research but no hard cites. Seems like recycled trope of "modern life is too busy and our brains are rotting".

I read a great excerpt from something published in the 1800s complaining about the same thing... I'll have to dig it up.


There they are... see 1894 and 1895 in particular.

I believe one of the problems with digitally minded brains tackling books is opportunity cost.

In a blog post, a tweet, or email I can quickly decide if it's worth my time -- does it pique interest, make me feel more connected to the world.

With a book, the investment of time and energy is much greater for an uncertain (but perhaps marvelously more meaningful) payoff.

This is a difficult problem a lot of us face. I personally have a habit of glancing through hundreds of articles that pop in my RSS reader everyday. Often after reading a handful of those articles, some of them providing certain bits and pieces of knowledge, I feel like it would have been better to focus on a single topic and learn more about it. That's where I miss books. Although I have many of them sitting in the shelf right next to me, it has become more difficult for me in the recent years to pick one up and start reading. I think it's time for a change. Thanks OP for sharing this.

One of the great tests for me personally is can I even remember the last 10 headlines or articles I read? The dopamine hit is in the discovery, not necessarily the comprehension.

Because the layout on medium.com, which purports to be a "long form" site for people who read, is for short-attention-span people. Scroll through the article linked. It's painful.

His points are mostly true, at least for some people, but I think we should go deeper than that. There are people who hate reading tech books and prefer to get the information in concise/shorter way through internet/SO. I am one of them, I have tried reading different software engineering books(widely recommended ones), but I just can't get into them. And yet I can easily digest an article about specific issue I have, try it out and if it works the article goes into my Pocket so I can check it again in the future, if something similar happens.

But give me a good fantasy novel, I will devour it. Wheel Of time (13 x 700 pages) was completed in 3 months. Chronicles of Amber? Done. ~60 books of Pratchett, a lot of them multiple times? Done. Tolkien? Done. There were countless of times, where I couldn't sleep before finishing a book, staying up to 4-5 am, when I usually go to sleep around 23-24:00. That's why I feel it is really hard to start a book, when you don't know what type of books you like. Some people enjoy fantasy/sci-fi/romance/action/prose and many more. Maybe something non-fiction? And I feel that schools should somehow help students discover their favourite authors and their favourite ganres.

Good article, but he could have given his point in one/third of the content length and it wouldn't have lost anything.

Well, I simply find that concentration takes practice. And we simply don't practice it much anymore.

I also think that we have forgotten that the point of email and text messaging was so that we could be asynchronous, rather than interrupt driven like a phone call.

I couldn't even finish reading this long article. Just a para or two, after that simply skimmed through till end. :-(

Meh, I think it's fine.

What is he/she really saying?

There's a thousand and one problems one could be solving in his/her life. Checking twitter/facebook less often and reading words printed on paper is priority number 356 for me. I don't know why it ranks so high for the author to warrant a blog post.

The real issue is not having your priorities straight that you are worrying about your allocation of time/resources. Surely there's bigger fish to fry in your own life - where's the blog post on that?

The difference between books and Internet articles is depth. A good book can take you from knowing nothing to a relatively deep understanding of a topic -- by nature of its format. Consider for example one of the classic books of all time: Newton's Principia. You can start reading that book with just a basic knowledge of geometry, and in a couple hundred pages later you'll know more about physics then you ever thought possible. And that book was presenting physics for the first time! That's not something you can replicate with Internet articles. It would be much more trouble to do that over the Internet, and you would cry "please, write a book and send it to me so I can read all this information in a easier way". Other books are like that, not only in science but also in literature, philosophy, computing (e.g.: TAOCP) and so many other areas.

The problem we have nowadays is that, because it became so much easier to write books, we have more and more books that don't add much to human knowledge. In the old times, writing and publishing a book was hard, which meant that the threshold for acceptance was much higher. Our society views this downgrading of book quality as a sign that books are not a good format, when in fact this is just an unintended consequence of our technology.

I think the changes are inherent to interactivity and the infinite volume of the internet. These change everything. Once you can respond, you are a part of the fray and your thinking changes.

When you read an interesting nonfiction book today, you can also check wikipedia, listen to podcasts, watch the author giving a Ted talk and jump into the infinite sea of informal online commentary.

IE, reading on HN is not reading in the sense that reading some book in 1991 was. It's being in a conversation, for better and worse. Your mind is operating in a different context.

I also think that writing is adapting more slowly than reading. Many nonfiction books I find interesting are 250-400 pages when they could be under 100 and just as effective. I think that's some side effect of paperback books published by the publishing industry, the medium and its economic ecosystem.

In any case, if you want to maintain reading of that kind as a habit or pursuit, you need to create an environment for it. Have a reading room in your house, go to a cafe or park or your garden and read there. Set and setting. You also need to be somewhat honest about what you like and how. Are you so engrossed that you read for 3hrs when you meant to read for 30min? Are you doing something that you need to discipline yourself into doing?

I don't know if the author can reasonably conflate the issues he does. I often (but not always -- perhaps 50/50) "fail" to listen to a song all the way through -- but I really only did that in the album, cassette and CD days because the tech sucked. Now I can easily jump to the part I want, just listening to i.

I only listen to podcasts when trapped on a long drive. Them I tend to listen to end-to-end again because the tech sucks.

I've always found it hard to sit and watch a film, or even a youtube video, linearly. It's generally just way too slow (and occastionally too fast) and I like to be able to skip around. But the tools suck.

Books, on the other hand, are ideal. In so many I luxuriate in them, especially fiction which can be so multimedia compared to a film, generally reading linearly. Others I skip around, skipping over boring bits, coming back to them, going back to parts I loved, or just reading something interesting over and over.

It's not that "the digital" caused me to lose my ability to concentrate, rather it allowed me access to media in a way that supports my enjoyment: sometimes intense, sometimes casual, and sometimes intense just on the parts that matter. How can this be bad?

Shallows is a great book about this and "what the internet does to our brains". This chrome extension is supposed to combat the internet's unquestionable ability to mess with our work focus: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/focusr/fgdcnfgmneb...

This is interesting, and I have been thinking about this quite a lot recently.

I used to read books by the dozen. Sometimes literally, in about 2006 I discovered Gollancz/Orion's "Sci-Fi Masterworks" series and was getting through more than one per week, in addition to holding down a job and having a pretty active social life.

Now I don't think I've read a book since I motored through my second reading of the "Song of Ice and Fire" stuff last year.

I, like the author, also find myself putting on some of the best TV there has ever been, and then doing something else while it's on, like checking email or facebook, or reading HN. So I don't really absorb it.

I don't want to cut out tv, but I do want to be able to concentrate on it, and I do want to read more books again. And get control of my sleeping patterns which have always, always been up the wazoo anyway.

So perhaps I shall join in and try to do as the author of this post has - start reading, deny the instant-gratification urges and reclaim my brain and my attention span.

Distraction might be a problem for some of us, but its important to remember that people are reading more books now than they ever have at any point in history, even if you only count paper books and especially if you count e-books.




I thought this was well-written, and pretty much spot on for most of us. The 'onto-the-next' part is scarily true for me. I always want to finish something, so I can continue onto whatever's next. Maybe this is normal.

I know for myself that, when putting something on the television, I'll pop out my mobile not too much later after, just to check up on things. It's very much the modern day curse, I think, and we seem to have no real constraint. We get these positive reinforcements ("Ooh, new e-mail. Ooh, new message from a friend. Ooh, something new and unknown and exciting.") from constantly not being present, so that's why we keep doing it.

Personally, I bought myself an e-reader and I already read a full book in a week or so. I'm not an avid reader, but I love books. The key was, for me at least, to read one chapter at a time. That way I always got progress each time I read.

It's probably quite a compliment to the author that I did actually read the whole thing -- about 2,500 words in a little under 15 minutes -- without switching away, other than a short pause when an e-mail arrived and a notification message popped up that I had to clear to carry on reading. Normally these days I find much over 1,000 words or 5 minutes on a screen and I'm losing concentration.

I don't even use things like Facebook and Twitter, but I do have a habit of reading the front page of HN/Reddit/whatever and opening a dozen different interesting-looking discussions and their corresponding articles all at once. Perhaps this attempt to be a bit more organised is actually more like the example mentioned in the article, where you're reading something but know you have a new mail waiting and it knocks 10 points off your effective IQ.

I don't get notification messages like you guys, or check my email for such short rewards.

Instead, I check my email or certain websites for substantial updates to my favorite fanfic or web serial.

3K words is heavenly.

10K words even more so.

The more words the better. If you can update faster than I can read, that'll be awesome.

Why I don't read non-technical things very often:

I have "better" (to me) things to do. I want to read about boost. I want to study LLVM. I want to write code. I want to set up a Linux server running node.js. I want to compare some NoSQL datastores to an RDBMS or two.

When I want distraction or to rest my brain, I'll take entertainment in short spans. I really don't want to invest weeks of two-hour nights reading a work of fiction. I'm not terribly interested in reading someone's biography. And unless a non-fiction topic is currently meaningful to me (for example, books about the human mind when I was in my early 20s), then I'm not likely to Just Read.

I feel like if I Just Read for reading's sake, I'm not honing the craft that's important to me. I feel like it makes me a "jack of all trades" and therefore "master of none."

For some time I thought I definitely had a shorter attention span due to the internet - I'd be reading something, and compulsively have to go check my email, facebook, forums I visit, hacker news, my frequented subreddits. Read a bit more. Check everything. Repeat.

But I didn't find it all that hard to just close my laptop and put my phone facedown more than an arm's length away. I thought it would be a titanic struggle - but as soon as I made it slightly inconvenient to distract myself, I found myself once again able to read through hundreds of pages of books.

It's anecdotal, of course. But for me, being able to "read" again was as simple of giving myself the slightest barrier to getting distracted.

In many instructional and self-help books, I find that the author's attempt to hit appropriate word-count for the book format bores me to no end. Even worse, it wastes my time. I bought your book, please don't waste 10% of your page count in selling me the book.

I think notable exceptions to this are found in 'The Practice of System and Network Administration' and 'Time Management for System Administrators.'

Fiction, I can read at times. For the last book I read, 'The Mote in God's Eye', I read the first four chapters or so, then put it off for 5 months, and then finished it in a week. That one does start off pretty slowly.

Fundamentally there is a sense of not wanting to 'miss' anything, I believe that was the original force behind 24hr news channels, you watched because if you didn't then something could have happened HOURS ago and you wouldn't even know it yet.

I have a slightly different problem which is reading too much. It is embarassing when you miss your stop on the train because the article you are reading has distracted you. I also am something of a completionist when it comes to books, so I find even when I don't "like" the book I'm compelled to finish it.

I'm the same way. It's bad enough that I can't read on the train because It's guaranteed I'll miss my stop. I can't read in the evening or I'll be up till 4am finishing the book. I limit my reading to times when I have an open stretch of several hours to avoid it colliding with some other appointment or something.

I was reading this article when the urge to check HN's comments to this article struck me. Then I decided to write this comment about it in the browser, to paste when I would be done reading.

We do read. We just read in other formats. I never read has much as now, because when you browse the internet, you essentially read.

You are just becomming picky about the format, because when there is a lot of quantity, your brain decides what quality it wants to prioritize.

If something is long, complicated and unpleasant to read, it often can be reformated so it's not. All text are not essais. And you don't need to read or write an essay everyday.

So it makes sense to me. Readers to the contexte, we optimize, and writters should too.

I didn't find the article very insightful, because it lumps all "books" together. I haven't read a technical book in several years, because it's so much easier to find what I want online. But I read nonfiction whenever I have the time, or want to decompress. I have no problem switching between hyper-multitasking and deep focus.

Perhaps the author never fully learned that. I wonder if it's age-related. Or maybe I'm the odd one: ADHD/bipolar with hard-won focusing skills ;)

Online articles are like junk food - it's more appealing but has little substance. If you can get used to reading real books again then the online stuff is a lot less appealing.

Does that include this article that said something very similar?

We can. I set a simple goal of reading 100 pages a week and was stuggling with reaching that number for quite some time. Then I started to read books that were better written and the pages started to fly by (and it is not exactly that the books were easier - The Strategy of Conflict is an academic book written by an academic but it is still well written).

My guess is that the same is the case for others, which makes for a simple solution: don't read badly written books.

I don't get this either, I think if you're finding it really difficult to read a book then maybe you're not reading the right book. A book should suck you in and not let go until you are finished. I love reading, and I just finished The Stand which was a long book at ~1300 pages but I just could barely put it down over the week or so that I was reading it, even with full time programming work, commutes, and caring for a child with my partner.

They said the same thing about television 50+ years ago. And then video games and MTV 30 years ago. As far as I can tell people are doing just fine and books and reading continue along uninterrupted. People are as intelligent as they were a generation or two ago and are able to concentrate and solve problems just fine.

The "research" on how our brains are affected by media has historically been incredibly speculative and shoddy. Is it any different this time?

My life was changed when I found out I could use smartphone apps to read texts to me, and tell me exactly how long till I finish. I used to be too annoyed to start a book because it seemed to drag on forever. (That plus I could never find the right chair, lighting, etc).

Now, in contrast to other comments on here, I find the best time to listen is just before bed on my evening walk. If I really want to get through quickly, I listen on my commute also.

I have found that since reading Aaron Schwartz's "I Hate the News"[1] I can read more. I consciously try to avoid the morning news routine, replacing it with a chapter of whatever book I'm reading.

[1] http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/hatethenews

I agree with this articles and I struggle with this.

I'm asking for help, I identified this issue: all this browsing/facebook/YC/reddit is making my attention span and ability to focus weaker.

How to get it back? I want to have a killer attention span and ability to focus on one task. I started meditation in order to do this, any other recommendation?

My experience has been the opposite this year. There's a great library near by and we had our first child. A desire to minimize electronics around the little one, to wind down in the evenings, and to balance my digital life with something more physical has resulted in me reading way more books in the past year than many before it.

I think reading books is a waste of time, and I'm a little tired of people telling me I should read them.

Books are archaic, and the idea that you aren't intelligent or informed or cultured unless you read them is just pure dogma at this point.

We have internet-connected devices now. Content can be published, peer-reviewed, and disseminated to an international audience in under an hour. I can have a dialogue with the person who wrote it, ask questions and submit corrections that can be published 10 minutes later.

To me that is such a massive improvement over the old model that I no longer have any time for the old model. I don't have to wait for content from a small handful of people at a publisher in New York, and I'm extremely thankful for that.

I can appreciate some books as works of art or just for entertainment, but books are an incredibly inefficient method of pursuing knowledge and culture, and for that purpose I wouldn't recommend them to anybody.

So to answer the question posed by the title of this article: We can, we just shouldn't, which is convenient because we don't want to.

It depends. I think both have their place. Online content tends to be much shallower. But it allows you to explore a much broader content quickly.

Books tend to be deep, and good ones have gone through many iterations. Do you think you can get the ideas presented in, say, SICP or Principles of Mathematical Analysis by going through online material?

I think it may be possible, but it's actually harder.

> Do you think you can get the ideas presented in, say, SICP or Principles of Mathematical Analysis by going through online material?

The parent was making the point that it's possible to have a much better system where the book authors communicate with the readers online which improves both the quality and ease of understanding. As of now, it may not be the situation but in future there surely will be better ways to do things.

Also if we go by the literal meaning, book is defined as "a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers". The part which requires "approval and published by a publisher" is a model of a book making and there may be better models out there.

Books surely still have a place and reading them isn't just pure dogma.

I'm currently reading Gods Bankers by Gerald Posner about the history of the Vatican Bank. It has about 10 pages of referenced bibilography on what must be at least 300-400 sources, and 170(!) pages of footnotes from referenced interviews, articles, online reports etc.

You aren't going to get that type of in depth coverage of a subject from something that was curated and thrown together in 10 minutes and put up on the web. Long form writing and investigative journalism still has it's place if you are looking for an in depth view of a subject you are interested in.

As publishers on the internet (bloggers etc) strive to earn an audience they condense more and more value into blog posts. This is an excellent way to get high-quality information quickly. I've read few books that provide a similar level of information density (SICP maybe?).

The pursuit of culture - I believe you should only do this if you enjoy it. Profound immersion in 'culture' (however you define it) for the sake of obtaining it is like going to the gym for giant muscles you don't need. Pointless, unless you actually enjoy it.

The problem is not only with reading, but uninterrupted concentrating on a single cognitive task.

Children do have the same behavior, before they learn to sit down and concentrate.

We are becoming children again. Everything should be super easy. This is what sells. A tablet for example has the haptics of a babies device.

IME, children (I have 4 of them) have extremely high concentration levels, if they choose the thing they're concentrating on. My 8yo will read for hours, uninterrupted. My 6yo reads for 30min+. Even my 3yo will happily look through picture books for 15-30min.

Well, if you happen to be a music teacher for kids you see the very poor concentration levels of the average kid. You also see the progress of it over time and age. And that nearly every parent is overestimating the skills of their own kids.

I don't have a problem reading when it is properly paginated like a book or ebook. But when i read a online article it becomes something else because it is just a very long scroll of text. Perhaps the one thing the web really need is a pagination API...

I prefer a long scroll of text. Less distraction. Books are paginated arbitrarily, and it's quite a large aspect of the experience to be left up to random chance.

I agree. Having a scrollbar as a percentage completion indicator is a very nice thing. I can also highlight the text on the page where I was at in the likely event I get distracted and have to move on to something else. At this point, I do this out of habit on any article longer than a few paragraphs.

Side note, if your site pops up a stupid SHARE THIS ON FACEBOOK AND TWITTER when someone highlights text, I most likely won't read your articles. I didn't read this one because Medium does this; SBNation articles do this, too and my browser now loads custom Javascript on their pages to remove it. It's distracting and serves no real purpose, except to take me out of my flow of reading.

After posting the initial comment i found a most interesting Firefox extension.


It allows me to single out the main text of a site, and break it into screen height sized columns. These can then be paged through much like a book.

Seems to make it much easier for me at least to get through a long article without jumping between paragraphs.

The author makes no considerations about writing for the web. He would hate to hear that, of course, but there's no way I am going to read that. Well, maybe if I feed it into a summarization app, maybe. ;)

Since I've started to meditate a few months ago, I really read a lot more than before.. It seems to lessen my need to procrastinate and feelings of "fear of missing out".

We? I'm pretty sure I've finished four books since February.

What if we're reading less and less today for the same reason we no longer have town criers or pictograms?

I wanted to read this post, but it was too long and I moved on to something else.

I read about 2 books per week on the Kindle, more if I have to wait on Trend Micro (thanks Security!!).

Can someone TLDR this for me?

I would, if I could still read.


why is this grey? Don't people have a sense of humour anymore?

HN is not Reddit. Plenty of people make humorous or entertaining comments, but distracting joke threads full of obvious one-liners and no real content aren't generally welcome.

There's actually a really interesting discussion on Quora, I think, about why they had something along the lines of a no-humor policy.

The problem isn't that people are humorless– it's that when you reward people for humor (often resulting in puns and pithy one liners), after a while, people start competing to be as funny as possible– and that's all that ever rises to the top. It crowds out more deliberate, thoughtful discussion.

I love humor and comedy myself, but it makes sense to me why a discussion forum might deliberately choose to discourage it.

came here looking for that comment, was expecting it to be top-post ..

And you know, it's interesting to think about why that is, and how that helps anybody.

Have you ever gone onto a blogpost about procrastination and found the "I'll read this later" comment, and the "I'm here reading this instead of working" comment? Are those comments ever valuable?

It makes sense to downvote them to the bottom, so that people who go looking for them can find them, but the discussion is kept as fresh and relevant as possible.

we are getting meta but I think these type of comments are of a different breed. These do not provide any meaningful (or value) to the conversation nor are related to the subject, on the other hand the "tl;dr" was totally related to the context of the article, and a nice pun intended for the sense of humor.

Also it was how this whole conversation started, although really tangential to the OP; which encouraged a conversation.

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