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April 17, 2014 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Should I put more effort into reading books? Is not reading books detrimental to my critical thinking skills?

I feel a bit ashamed admitting this, but I don't really like to read books. I can read short-form stories and articles, but it's been only a few books that could hold my attention enough to read to completion. I know I shouldn't feel guilty putting down a book if I lose interest, but this happens with just about every book I attempt, regardless of genre. This has been for pretty much my whole life. I was a high achieving student (and could force myself to read assigned books for class), but was never one to read for pleasure. I don't think I've ever seen either one of my parents read a book and they are both thoughtful individuals.

Is this bad for me? Does this sort of intollerance of long form stunt my thinking?

Part of what has driven me to ask this is that I've noticed that the internet has been flooding us with more and more drivel in teh short form making it hard to find the gems, and thus i feel i read a lot of garbage trying to find something worthwhile.

Should I put more effort into reading books, or is it ok to just let it go without being anti-intellect?
posted by WeekendJen to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
If you just kind of don't enjoy reading books, I'd say there's no reason to force yourself. You're not going to get anything out of a book you don't actually want to read, and if you don't actually want to read it, you might as well just not, and save yourself the time and effort.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:40 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I personally know lots of smart people who read more articles and such than books. I think overall you're fine.

From an internal point of view, my vocabulary recall decreases when I read less books, and I feel that in times when I've stopped, I have managed to create a shorter attention span as well.

However, I would think as long as you're not fully replacing reading with Honey Boo Boo you'll be fine!
posted by euphoria066 at 11:42 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think it stunts your thinking - long-form is just one (convenient) way of going deeper into a subject. If you can't focus on anything for very long (not just books), then that would be something to be more concerned about, and even then, not in terms of becoming stunted, but in terms of not being able to excel in things.
But it sounds like you can focus and drill down as necessary, you're just not doing it for pleasure. Doing it for pleasure probably makes it a more natural thing to do, easier, but if you can do it, you can do it.
posted by anonymisc at 11:46 AM on April 17, 2014

...but it's been only a few books that could hold my attention enough to read to completion.

Unless you're having attention issues that impact your quality of life otherwise, it may be that you, personally, aren't fond of the format of the book. I bet you have preferences in the content of what you read, so there's absolutely nothing wrong with having preferences for the medium as well.

Personally, I read books rarely, and I feel a little guilty about it, but not terribly. There's a certain gravity to the idea of The Book that you just don't get with magazine articles or whatever and the absence of The Book in your life can often feel conspicuous, especially if you're surrounded with intelligent people who read books.

And if you ever do want to read a book and find your attention waning: it's totally cool to skip boring stuff. No one is going to check and if you miss something important you can go back and read it later. I've found I've managed to make it through more books by skipping a few (dozen) pages here or there. It's sacrilege to some, sure, but it also means I stand a higher chance of actually finishing the damn book instead of putting it down and never coming back to it.
posted by griphus at 11:47 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a librarian. Not reading books is okay. There are a few things you get from reading that are valuable and you should think about whether you have them elsewhere.

- vocabulary - exposure to new words is a good thing and books have 'em. Articles also have 'em but it's worth making sure you're reading stuff that is maybe a little challenging?
- imagination - fiction is sort of neat because you get to, using the author's outline, make up people and places in your head. If you are someone who does this on your own anyhow, no big deal but I think it's a useful thing to flex your mind to do. You can go for a walk in the woods and get some of the same stuff.
- habits that can age with you - reading can be a good thing to take with you as you get older and go new places. Some people really enjoy re-reading books from different points in their life and experiencing them within a different context of where their lives are now
- connection to a community of readers - one of the nice things about reading is that it's accessible to a lot of people in all walks of life and it can connect them. Book groups are sort of neat to see that other people, starting from the same place, brought their own experiences to a text and got new things out of them. There's something neat in sharing those ideas with people
- learning new things - obviously being a lifelong learner can be done through books, but it can also come from other places
- staying on top of things - reading is less and less something you are expected to do to be able to have conversations with people but in some groups this is still a thing "read any good books lately?"
- "intellectual rigor" - sort of a different thing but I think there's value in getting away from the screen and engaging with ideas. This can be with other people, or in other formats but for some people books allow them a way to do this.
- libraries - the public library is an amazing thing, even if you're not much of a book reader. Don't not go to the library just because you're not much of a book reader

So, in short, you are fine. I think there is value to reading books and in my personal life I try to read a lot but it's not all "big ideas" books, often it's genre mysteries, graphic novels, or books from my childhood. If you have larger concerns about whether your brain is still staying interested, that's separate but just not reading books is generally okay.
posted by jessamyn at 11:50 AM on April 17, 2014 [36 favorites]

My father is an incredibly bright man and he doesn't read books. He reads articles online and he reads the news but that is about it. He DOES however play a lot of scrabble, which is also supposed to give your brain a good workout and be beneficial.

So if you're worried and you really don't like books, go play scrabble.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:57 AM on April 17, 2014

of course jessamyn is right that not reading books is generally okay. but she's also right about all those excellent reasons TO read books. another reason is it helps you develop and refine your tastes. when I think what my various tastes were years ago--and not only in literature--and what they are now, and what reading books has contributed to the change, and how much more I enjoy life's offerings because of it . . . well, it makes me want to go read another book.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 12:02 PM on April 17, 2014

"the internet has been flooding us with more and more drivel in teh short form"

There is lots of drivel on the Internet...but there is also good stuff. However a lot of the good stuff is not free. If you want to read good stuff, but not books, make sure you have good stuff around to read. Subscribe to some magazines. Get the online or tablet editions if that's more convenient. The Economist, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, etc. Also, Arts and Letters Daily has a lot of links to non-drivel, and they've got a great list of links on the left side of their page.

Also if you don't want to read generally but want intellectual stuff this is a great time for documentaries on television. Many are on Netflix and cable TV if you subscribe to that, and there's PBS for everybody. Never thought I would see Cosmos redone on Fox.
posted by massysett at 12:28 PM on April 17, 2014

I'm going to go a bit against the grain here.

I read a lot of journal articles in my topic of research. I already have the broader context of the topic and research articles are filling in specific gaps of knowledge where I need specific research. Books have a few hundred pages to frame the information within the full body information. An article - even if it's 30 or 40 pages struggles to do that. It's not that you couldn't pull together a series of articles to deeply explore a topic, it's just a bit of extra work.

It's what I call the TedTalk Syndrome. I love TedTalks, but asking people to consolidate their entire topic into 15 amusing minutes is going to give listeners a taste of the topic - not the whole topic. And that's okay if that's what you're looking to find. Sometimes you only need the high points.

Pick long form or short form based on how wide and deep you want to delve into a topic.
posted by 26.2 at 12:38 PM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Does this sort of intolerance of long form stunt my thinking?

Well yeah, of course it does. A lot of the previous answers are soft-pedaling this, I think out of a desire not to hurt your feelings, but it's unavoidable. Books, serious books, are where rigorous arguments are hashed out, detailed evidence compiled and discussed, nuanced psychologies rendered, and detailed stories told. There is no alternative to reading books if these are things that you want. Not reading, or reading shallowly, is still perfectly okay — I mean, it's certainly the case for everyone, even the greatest polymath, that we are going to engage on a fairly shallow level with most subjects outside whatever few areas we know the best, and no one can know everything about everything, no matter how much reading they do — but there is absolutely a major qualitative difference between the level of rigor and depth and intellectual seriousness you can achieve by reading (the right) books and what you can get in shorter, easier-to-consume form. TED talks and magazine pieces are packaged for pleasure of consumption, not depth of insight or breadth of real knowledge, so of course they're easier to stomach.
posted by RogerB at 12:48 PM on April 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

I think there's a good argument to be made that some TV shows these days are as rich and complex as novels: for example, here and here. If you enjoy following the arc of multi-season TV series, then it probably isn't an attention span thing.

For some people, there's something about physically reading words on the page that's especially tiring and feels not-worth-it after a while. Audiobooks might be a good option if that's the case for you.

The way you describe it as losing interest in a book, and that you have a tough time finding the gems among internet articles as well, makes me think it's possible you just haven't found the books that are right for you yet. Are you only ever picking up books that you feel like you "should" read? Nonfiction and literary classics and such? Because maybe if you picked a totally different kind of book, you would be more interested in it. Whoever's been advising you about what to read up til now? Maybe ignore them and explore the library catalog on your own and see what you're drawn to.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:49 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anecdata: I used to be a great reader, have read very few proper books the past few years in deference to blogs and articles and this place, and feel strongly I am dumber for it. More skittish, less focused. I've been deliberately trying to break myself if this habit because I feel like my inner life is richer when I do take the time to really sit with something and consider it, be that a novel or a history or what have you.
posted by Diablevert at 12:53 PM on April 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

I read all the time but I am under no illusion it makes me "smarter." Maybe more knowledgeable on the topic in question, but it's not like knowledge is available nowhere else.

I really do love books; my apartment is overflowing with them. But I find the fetishizing that sometimes goes on rather silly. It's just words printed on paper. No magic. Have sex with whoever you want regardless of what's in their apartment.

I'd also second that you might be trying the wrong books for you. I love reading but if a certain book is unpleasant or boring I'll stop. I have a good idea what I like but I still order the occasional dud off Amazon that I'm totally convinced I'll love. I've also failed with such classics as "Moby Dick" and "Gravity's Rainbow" because the style just wasn't pleasant to read for me.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:00 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm generally of the opinion that life is too short to do anything that you don't like to do if you don't "have" to. But, because you asked this question, I feel that you do want to be able to enjoy a book...and since you are now getting frustrated with having to weed through all the junk that you see in online articles, then I think it might be time to try books again. To me they are much more relaxing to read than articles (especially those online) because you can just sit with one book and read page by page, instead of being distracted by different links and things all competing for your attention. To me it just feels good to focus on one topic or story.

It sounds like it will be a challenge to find something that will hold your attention though. I would suggest seeing if any of the writers you enjoy have written books. Or spend time browsing in a bookstore or library, picking up whatever catches your eye and reading until you get bored or feel compelled to buy/check it out, no judgement or your choices and whether it's "intellectual" enough. OR - maybe its an issue of format. You say that you've never really liked reading books, but what about e-books?

But if that fails, give yourself permission not to read books (and this is coming from someone from LOVES to read). It sounds like maybe you always felt obligated to read books for school while you were growing up, and that feeling of obligation is going to take the pleasure out of it for sure.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 1:30 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the findings that I've gleaned from research in this area is that reading literary fiction can improve your ability to empathize -- that is, your ability to understand the emotions, motivations, and mental states of others (e.g., see this paper). That said, reading literary fiction isn't the only way to develop this skill.
posted by tybeet at 1:32 PM on April 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

There was an article about that recently. Turns out reading short form online content does change the way you read on a cognitive level.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:06 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of the findings that I've gleaned from research in this area is that reading literary fiction can improve your ability to empathize -- that is, your ability to understand the emotions, motivations, and mental states of others

Heck, it doesn't even need to be fancy literary fiction, any decent fiction, genre or literary, will do this. I've always been a voracious reader, and yeah, my vocabulary's pretty good and I feel intellectually challenged, but the greatest gift my reading habit has given me is an ability and willingness to empathize.

If you're getting increasingly dissatisfied with the short-form writing so prevalent on the web, maybe it's time to revisit books. Maybe start with books that can be read in discrete chunks, like short fiction collections or non-fiction books that are broken up into chapters that can be read as articles.
posted by yasaman at 5:33 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with guster4lovers. Normally, I would suggest you read Nick Carr's book "The Shallows" about how Internet usage affects the brain. In your case, it sort of goes to the point: you can't absorb material that requires some time and effort to digest (and that is a fast read). Some content requires book-size treatment. I read a lot of non-fiction and appreciate that ideas are structured and sequenced and have been edited in order to make a complex and comprehensive argument. The writer and editor have also made a decision about what content to include or, perhaps more importantly, what to exclude. It is really important to understand that not everything can be reduced to a bumper sticker.

If you want a deep understanding of something, you need to be able to read books.

I agree with the earlier posters that fiction has tremendous value over and above enjoyment.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:52 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The way you describe it as losing interest in a book, and that you have a tough time finding the gems among internet articles as well, makes me think it's possible you just haven't found the books that are right for you yet.

I agree with Bentobox, and I've also recently been working on feeding my tastes as they come rather than selecting texts based on whatever sense of obligation or pertinence they pack.

Having moved to a large county (Hennepin woot woot!), I've been maintaining a "requests waiting to be filled" queue and activating requests as appropriate. A week later the titles have arrived, and if I stick my nose in a book (I'm looking at you, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskiĭ) that doesn't suit my current desires it doesn't mean shit to drop it for the next title, seeing as the only expense is whatever is raised by about three miles of automobile usage.
posted by mr. digits at 7:43 AM on April 18, 2014

(I might add that the "requests waiting to be filled" queue is library-based.)
posted by mr. digits at 8:23 AM on April 18, 2014

Ok, I have decided not to give up.

I thought back over books I liked and finished and off the top of my head recalled a dozen or so. I think maybe this issue maybe sprouted because I've only finished 1 or 2 books in teh past 3 years, but at the same time I've been going from one pressure cooker life change to another so I will just give myself a break and allow for mass browsing and skimming of books until i find something to consume, even if its a Harlequin Romance Period Bodice Ripper.

For the record I frequent the Free Library of Philadelphia (mostly for movies and recordings lately but i do check out books about how to do house fixing stuff) and I donate to it - I'm definitely not anti-library and its where I plan on sourcing books. Also they have a good online reservation system so i can just walk a few blocks to my branch and pick stuff up.

I'm going to probably end up with some fiction to start because my biggest beef with short form lately is that everything now-a-days seems like it is so overly- editorializing that its hard to get to real data and info about something to even think about it yourself adn draw your own conclusions. I don't know if this is a real trend in writing style or just the result of too much clickbait.

posted by WeekendJen at 10:53 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

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