Have I, too, lost my ability to read? Not if I can help it.

By Christine Beyleveldt, Editor-in-Chief

During the spring last year, our Community Relations Manager shared an interesting Globe and Mail article by Michael Harris with us titled “I have forgotten how to read”. From the title alone I thought it was nonsense, but the author had a point. He didn’t mean he had forgotten how to read in the literal sense that letters on the page became a blur of meaningless symbols. Rather he meant we’ve become so addicted to our digital devices and their endless stream of content that we just don’t have the attention span to concentrate on something as hefty as a book anymore. When most of us can barely get to the end of an article the length of the one I’m writing now, how is one supposed to stay focused with 500 pages ahead? It turns out even goldfish with their full nine seconds of concentration have longer attention spans than humans do now. 

I love my books. With age and responsibility, I have less time to read. Or so I tell myself. For the last few years I’ve only cracked open my novels in the summertime when I had ample time to read, preferably sitting on my front porch in the dappled sunlight. But come fall they inevitably go back on my shelf to gather dust while I wish for more time. I’m determined not to settle into that habit again this year. I had just started reading The Count of Monte Cristo when summer abruptly ended last year. Do you know when I finished the book? May. For eight months it sat on my bedside table untouched. I only had “enough time” to get back into Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling tale of a hero hell-bent on revenge while on a five-hour drive across South Africa’s Western Cape with rolling hills of purple fynbos passing me by.      

Finding an hour to read a few chapters is a lot harder than it was a few years ago. I have the time to read, although I usually spend it scrolling through my news feed on Facebook after getting home from work. The pull of my phone is irresistible, it’s my “down time”. But it could also be spent reading or going for a walk and feeling the crisp autumn air on my cheeks. I wonder how we got to this point. Where technology, which we use at school, at work and at home, is also our escape. If we spent as much time as we do with our smartphones as we do with anything else in the world, wouldn’t we eventually get sick of it? Is there such a thing anymore as limiting screen time? Or have we accepted that it has become an all-consuming facet of our lives? 

Sometimes it just takes something incredible to lure oneself out of this sense of security created by handheld technology. In my case, that’s a marvellous book. I read a lot of fiction, but more often have found myself enjoying biographies such as Amanda Lindhout’s A House in the Sky – her story of survival as a journalist taken hostage in Somalia, and Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa – on his boyhood in war-torn Rhodesia. Perhaps the best book I read this summer was Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. The book, simply put, is the story of a 12th century English town beset by misfortune but determined to build a magnificent cathedral. It was a story of survival in the face of opposing forces on all sides, and the triumph of the human spirit. And that’s what makes the best kind of story. 

So, as summer turned to autumn again this year, I feared losing the time I spent enraptured by good storytelling once again. But Harris’ article gave me a jolt, and it’s turned into a showdown of my own will against the shortened hours of daylight and the lure of my phone. I’m trying to set aside time to read every day. And I don’t mean the series of status updates and blog posts in my social media feed, I mean a good old-fashioned book.

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