Graphic by Rosy Tahan

Rediscovering the Pleasure in Reading

The experience of reading can still be what it was for us as children — delightful, chilling, tragic, thrilling, transformative.

Nov 12, 2016

You buy a book. You decide that this time, you really are going to read it. You sit down, get comfortable and begin. You read a few pages, but when you lift your hand to turn the page, your fingers itch. They twitch the other way. Your eyes dart away from the words on the page to the phone you left close by, conveniently, but also stupidly, because the next thing you know you’re either scrolling down various social media timelines or typing out that email you forgot to send to your professor.
You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish, declared the headline of a Time magazine article about a 2015 Microsoft Corporation study on attention. According to the Statistical Yearbook of Abu Dhabi, the number of visitors to the National Library has increased, but registered borrowers have dropped by around 20,000 over two years. Following an unscientific census of friends and acquaintances, I have concluded that we’ve all fallen victim to the irresistible pull of our college-student lives, as unexciting as they are next to Harry Potter’s. I can’t reassure myself with still-high statistics of book sales, because if these readers are anything like me, books are bought and remain untouched, unopened, spines unbroken.
The problem isn’t just that we don’t have time to read — anyone who’s half-decent at prioritizing can set aside at least half an hour to sit, uninterrupted, with a book in hand. But reading is a little harder than other leisure activities. A movie or a TV show unfolds whether or not you are paying attention at every instant, but a book demands that you meet it halfway. Without an attentive reader, words are just ink on paper, and at some point, the mental process of turning printed squiggles into stories became a lot less fun — regardless of whether we should blame the internet or our workloads.
On the other hand, there’s the notion that reading — especially for pleasure — is the height of intellectualism. While the benefits of reading have been extensively documented, an unfortunate consequence of the Smart People Read rhetoric is that books are valued more when they make us look intellectual than when they are actually enjoyable. Does the pride felt in proclaiming that you’ve read Anna Karenina justify the misery of trudging through it?
Reading doesn’t have to be something we only do for a class, or to gain intellectual credit. The experience of reading can still be what it was for us as children — delightful, chilling, tragic, thrilling and transformative. The proliferation of articles about how we have become inferior to goldfish at concentrating only shows that the process can be reversed. This isn’t a deterministic evolutionary change. It’s a habit, and habits can be broken with a little effort.
Get rid of your phone. Stuff it between the couch cushions, ask a friend to keep it away from you, give it to Public Safety. If you need to look things up, use a dictionary. Find a space clear of distractions. Get comfortable. When you read, listen to the little voice in your head and how eager it is to hear the words. Read poetry that makes absolutely no sense the first time. Mull the words over. Grapple with them. Reread something you know you love. Slow down. You have time. No one cares if you never read Ulysses.
A book can only work its magic if we dive deep into its heart. We really don’t need to come up for air — the world just got a whole lot worse over the past week anyway. Real life can wait, and you’ll return a better person.
Rosy Tahan is a staff writer. Email her at
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