The Difficult Art of Undistracted Reading

Over on Medium, Hugh McGuire has an interesting piece asking, “Why can’t we read anymore?” The first line of the piece immediately triggered my skepticism radar:

Last year I read four books.

Uh-oh, I thought, this is going to be one of those pieces bemoaning the fact that there just isn’t anything good to read out there anymore. But of course, that is not at all what the piece was about. In fact, I found McGuire’s article an interesting argument for what happens to us in an instant gratification, attention-grabbing culture. Reading is harder because there are more distractions. Reading is harder because we compare reading to other exercises that grab our attention and reward it quickly (but often trivially). I might not have believed this, if I hadn’t experienced it myself more and more frequently.

Last year, I read 37 books. This year, so far, I’ve read 21 books.

Sounds like a lot, but these days, the vast majority of my reading is done while doing other things. Of the 58 books I’ve read in the last 21 months 51 of them (88%) were audiobooks. Audiobooks allow me to read while I walk1. They allow me to read while I do my chores. Without this time, the vast majority of my reading simply would not get done.

But there is a plus and minus to listening to audiobooks. The plus is that it can be done while doing other things. The minus is that I have found myself more and more distracted when I am not doing other things. If I am just laying in bed listening to an audiobook, I find myself catching up on blogs or Twitter at the same time. The result, of course, is that I miss passages, I have to rewind, or I only pay half-attention to what I am listening to. Why this happens has a lot to do with what Hugh McGuire writes about in his article. I started listening to audiobooks as a way of finding more time in the day to read. But it has ended up being my primary method for devouring books, even when I am not doing other things.

Part of this is the lure of the narrator. A good narrator adds a dimension to an book that is lacking on the page itself. But the reason I started with audiobooks was to take advantage of the low-brain power time–like my daily walks, or on long drives. I should not be listening to audiobooks before bed because the other distractions become too tempting.

McGuire proposes five things he has started doing to change his behavior and get more out of his reading. I’ve tried a few of those things myself, but the one thing I haven’t tried is “No smartphones or computers in the bedroom.” Because I listen to audiobooks, I have my phone with me.

McGuire reads with an e-ink reader, however, and this was the key insight for me. I have a Kindle Paperwhite, and the big benefit of this device is that it is not connected to the Internet. I can read on the device without being tempted to look at Twitter or Facebook, or catch up on blogs. So I am going to try to read (as opposed to listen) more in the evenings using my Kindle Paperwhite in an effort to have more distraction-free reading time. We’ll see how it goes for a while, and I’ll report back in month or two.

  1. As I have said elsewhere, I use the term “read” for simplicity. I understand that there is a difference between reading off the page and listening to a narrator read off the page.


  1. ah, audio books…they are great. I listen while we are driving and I am a passenger. It’s where most of my non-fiction “reading” gets done, but I often end up drifting off to sleep and missing something worthwhile. I do my best reading in the morning, which is also my best productivity time, so there’s an immediate conflict with my To-Do list for the day. I may have to end up structuring my reading and writing time, if I’m going to meet my goals. I still tend to think of time for reading and writing as a “reward,” rather than the “right” I could now claim. Of course, if I’ve been hooked by a riveting novel, I can easily end up forfeiting half-a-night’s sleep.

  2. I definitely enjoy my audio books on my way to work every morning. However, a real game changer for me has been the use of the Whispersync for Kindle between my Audible books and my Kindle collection. I definitely feel I only get about 70 to 80% comprehension when I’m listening to an audiobook, compared to 99% with an actual book, e-ink or otherwise. But being able to switch between the audio books and the print books really helps me to keep reading consistently.

    I like being able to read in bed before I fall asleep, and it isn’t really practical for me to listen to an audiobook instead of reading a print book in bed. But I’m able to pick right back up from where I left off when I get in my car in the morning, and listen to the next chapter on my way to work.


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