I’ve been increasingly interested in studying the causes behind recent shifts in our ability to engage in deep thinking and reading. For a recent long commute, I decided to download and listen to a new audiobook. I selected one I’d heard about on this topic called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari (2022). In this book, Hari shares the results of what he learned after interviewing the leading experts on human attention from around the world. Hari outlines twelve potential causes for this, one of which immediately grabbed my attention since it relates so closely to the school library field: Cause #4: The Collapse of Sustained Reading (also known as Chapter 4).
Hari (2022) is not the first author to note that both adults and children are reading less for pleasure and appear to be losing the ability to engage in sustained or deep reading. He cites troubling statistics from Gallup – that “some 57 percent of Americans now do not read a single book in a typical year”, that “by 2017, the average American spent seventeen minutes a day reading books and 5.4 hours on their phone,” and “less than half of Americans read literature for pleasure” (p. 80). He also shares research about the concept of “screen inferiority” – the idea that people comprehend and remember less of what they absorb via the screens of electronic devices. What is particularly troubling about this is that the “gap in understanding between books and screens is big enough that in elementary-school children, it’s the equivalent of two-thirds of a year’s growth in reading comprehension” (p. 82).
Hari (2022) does, however, appear to be the first (at least from what I’ve read) to deeply contemplate the idea that “the medium is the message” (p. 83). What this means is that each medium of information (e.g. television, a printed book, social media) serves as a type of goggles through which the user views that information. The medium thus shapes the message. He ponders that the message of social media appears to be that a) you should not focus on any one thing for long, b) the world should be quickly interpreted and understood, c) what matters is whether people agree with and affirm your short, simple statements or carefully crafted highlights of your life, and d) what matters is how you look on the outside. In contrast, the message of the printed book medium appears to be that a) “life is complex, and if you want to understand it, you have to set aside a fair bit of time to think deeply about it. You need to slow down” (p. 85), b) there is value in narrowing your attention to a set of pages and sentences, and c) there is value in thinking deeply about the complex inner lives of others.
Hari (2022) goes on to explain how reading a fiction novel enables one to imagine what it is like to be other people and enter into their experiences in deep and complex ways. Research has suggested that people become better at reading others’ emotions as they read more fiction – this type of reading functions as a sort of “empathy gym” that boosts one’s ability to empathize with others and “is one of the most rich and precious forms of focus we have” (p. 86).
Hari (2022) concludes his thoughts on this topic by stating:
We internalize the texture of the voices we’re exposed to. When you expose yourself to complex stories about the inner lives of other people over long periods of time, that will repattern your consciousness. You too will become more perceptive, open, and empathetic. If, by contrast, you expose yourself for hours a day to the disconnected fragments of shrieking and fury that dominate social media, your thoughts will start to be shaped like that. Your internal voices will become cruder, louder, less able to hear more tender and gentle thoughts. Take care what technologies you use, because your consciousness will, over time, come to be shaped like those technologies. (p. 90)
It’s not as if school librarians need another reason to promote reading for pleasure to our students. But if we did, what greater reason could you imagine for increasing your focus on getting your students to read more? Hari (2022) noted that reading books nourishes him and that he likes the person he becomes when he reads a lot of books. I wholeheartedly agree with and relate to this! Now we just need to focus on teaching the next generation how to experience this for themselves.
Hari, J. (2022). Stolen focus: Why you can’t pay attention – and how to think deeply again. New York: Crown.
Author: Melanie Lewis Croft
Melanie Lewis Croft is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of West Georgia and program coordinator for its fully online School Library Media Program. Dr. Croft has worked with all grade levels and subject areas across a variety of learning environments in public, private, urban, and rural school systems. She served the K-12 field of education for 17 years as a state-certified elementary level classroom teacher, secondary level library media specialist, and district administrator of technology, library services, and curriculum. Since 2014, Dr. Croft has worked at the university level as both a faculty member and program coordinator of two graduate education programs in school library media. She currently serves AASL as a member of the School Library Research Editorial Board and contributor to the Knowledge Quest Blog.