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The digital age is changing us in ways we never expected. If you had told me 20 years ago that one day I would stop reading books, I would have told you you were crazy. I’ve always been a reader; since I was little I hid somewhere with a book and devoured it, often in one go. Cut to 2021, when I realized I’d only read five books that year and the previous year only eight.
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I didn’t have to ask why. I already knew it was my phone. We see our phone’s calculation of how many hours we’ve spent on it each day and we can’t believe it. What? Hours, I understood, that I spent reading books. So I made a New Year’s Resolution for 2022: More books, less phone. I set myself a goal of fifty books. And I almost made it.
Here’s how I did it: I looked at what moments of the day I had more or less free time, i.e. when I woke up in the morning and before going to sleep. (I realize that if you’re a parent of young children, this will be more difficult to cope with.) I’ve designated these as my reading times. I made a rule to myself that I couldn’t get out of bed and start the day until I’d read 20 pages, and I couldn’t go to sleep at night until I’d read 20 more, so 40 pages in all, every day.
That would equate to nearly 15,000 pages, which — divided by about 300 pages per book — would amount to about 50 books. (I figured since even some books were under 300 pages, numbers would all work eventually.) A no-brainer, right?
At first, reading 40 pages a day was incredibly difficult for me after years of staring at my phone. When I woke up in the morning I had to fight a burning desire to pick up a device – Give me a phone, an iPad, anything! – and start clicking and scrolling, but this was no longer allowed. I was shocked to see how my brain resisted the rigor of reading now; it worried me. Would I ever regain my focus, my ability to truly immerse myself in a book?
The answer is yes. You can fix your distracted brain. You can bring it back to its most receptive and focused state, as you remember it was before the days of cell phones. And you can do it by reading.
I treated my brain like a muscle that needed stretching. At first I went slowly. I chose easy books to begin with, easy, that is, in their plain and simple language (which is actually my favorite genre). I like mysteries, thrillers and funny writers, so in the early days of 2022 I read some novels by Jim Thompson (The Grifters, The Getaway), Patricia Highsmith (The Two Faces of January) and Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette). I was gaining reading speed as I moved on to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer. The books I’ve been meaning to read for the past two years are finally being read.
Not only was I going faster, I was regaining the feeling of being inside a book, no longer wondering what was happening on social media or in the news. I was resetting my relationship with reading and replacing my phone addiction. Now I was reading not only in bed, but also on the subway, on the plane, where everyone around me usually watched the screens (and, yes, they could have read too; sometimes I read a book on the Kindle on my phone while fine). I remember the days when a New York City subway car was like a room in a library, with at least half of the passengers reading books. Now when I look around I see people mostly on their phones.
And that saddens me, because reading is wonderful for you. And it does wonderful things for our society. Reading literary fiction has been linked to having more empathy and the ability to engage in critical thinking. It’s also fun for me; there is no more magical experience. I seem to have time traveled to the 19th century in 2022 because I read Megan Marshall’s amazing biography Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Getting women educated was one of Fuller’s great missions, getting them to read. Because she knew that with reading comes freedom, liberation, the ability to think.
I read 46 books in 2022, following my new practice. I’m increasing my daily count to 50 pages a day in 2023, hoping to finish 60 books. I’m thrilled with the stack I’ve already chosen. I know I’m still a lightweight compared to others, but I feel like I’m on the right track. Going back to reading, I feel like myself again. Did I mention I sleep even better and feel happier too? Could it be because I spend my time reading books rather than caustic comments on Instagram and Twitter? It could be.