04/09/2014 10:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Tragic Death of the Good Read

Has this happened to you? Have you, whilst attempting to read an actual, dead-tree novel or lengthy magazine article, inadvertently swiped at the page with your finger, expecting a Delete tab to appear? Maybe you've tapped a photo hoping to expand it, or pinch-zoomed a page to make the font bigger, or glanced to the top of a page to see what site you're on, only to realize you're holding, you know, paper. "Silly me!" you chuckle to yourself, awkwardly.

Maybe you've done the even more ridiculous thing, and actually become impatient with said printed material, given how the damnable thing won't scroll, or play music, or light your way to the bathroom, or instantly Command-Tab over to some porn when you get bored. Right? So cute. And sad.

You are not alone. Researchers say our brains are getting so heavily iTrained to leap around like panicky jackrabbits, any sentence that dares to contain more than eight words, any paragraph that contains multiple clauses, any long-form work that offers deep background info or long-winded, roundabout verbiage -- aka "literature" -- merely leaves you sighing heavily and wishing for Candy Crush Saga.

It's happening everywhere, suggests this WaPo piece, not at all scientifically. English profs are reporting that their students are struggling more than ever to make it through the classics, because Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne don't read like Gawker. Comprehension rates appear to suffer when reading on screen versus paper. Generation Twitter just can't handle sentences with complex syntax, much less nuanced tone and multiple layers of meaning. Is it true?

And what about the wee ones? Surely, they've got it far worse. YouTube is aswim with videos of baffled tots playing with a printed book or magazine for the first time, tapping it frantically with their fingers, expecting it to blip and beep and order them a Mercedes from Amazon. Mom, WTF?

It might be a small problem. It might be just a little indicative of a disturbing shift, a wicked sea change in the way we navigate not just books, not just magazines and media, but love, time, each other, the world.

You think? Have our insta-everything devices beaten the gracefulness out of our hearts and the patience out of our brains? And also the depth? And the meaning? Maybe.


Do you ever sit across from someone as they chat you up, wishing you could Command-Click them into another topic already? Do you, whilst soaking up sunshine in the park, find yourself reaching for the phone to Instagram a photo of the trees? Do you know anyone who speaks like BuzzFeed writes, all ditzy, 5th-grade burps of pop culture phlegm that make your colon spasm and your heart mourn? I bet you do.

Let us be clear: This is not just a question of shortened attention spans resulting from the same old Internet addiction we've been hearing about forever. What are you, 2002?

This goes a little deeper, speaks to our ability to think deeply, proceed calmly, dance with complexity and nuance, to find space for the mind to move and for time to expand, as opposed to frantically foreshortening and condensing it, skimming, scrolling and banging through the world like a pinball machine. App.

Put it this way: There is a very good reason Adderall, the amphetamine salt that supposedly treats ADHD, is the most popular drug right now for everyone from college kids to tech CEOs. It ain't because it helps you be mellow, sit still and calmly focus for long periods. Not exactly. Rather, it's because it matches, quite perfectly, the buzzy, jumpy, multiple-focus-point amplitude of the age. It's high-class speed with a lucidity kicker.

Don't take my word for it. Perhaps you noticed the best April Fools joke of the year? It came from NPR, in the form of a simple headline on their home page: "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?"

The joke was, there was no story, no research or data to delve into a deeper point. There was just a short sentence telling readers that the headline was a trick, a lure to see how many impatient, know-it-all readers would skip right by the content so they could (angrily, emphatically, verbosely) "answer" the headline's question in the comments, all without actually reading anything at all. Brilliant.

Maybe we'll be fine. Maybe the concern about the epidemic of jumpy, unfocused brains and the subsequent death of complex thinking...

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Mark Morford is an award-winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate, the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, and the creator of the Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor at San Francisco's Yoga Tree, and the creator of the Yoga for Writers series of workshops and retreats. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...