It’s hard to read printed words these days. Who wants to crack open a boring old book when you’ve got an infinite scroll of the latest Twitter hatefest, non-stop booty-shaking TikTok videos, and Pepe Frog memes to look at? Now with Web3 out there, or the Metaverse, or Zuck’s Uncanny Valley, or whatever the hell they’re calling it, the days of reading plain old black and white text on dead trees are surely numbered.
Just look around you. Everyone’s become “smartphone-faced.” That’s when you hold your phone so close to your face it practically is your face. Ancient Hindu swamis once warned the youth of their day not to stare too long into the River Ganges, or else it would absorb their soul, and they’d spend eternity trapped underwater. The same warning could be applied to everyone today and their O.C.D. (Obsessive Cellular Disorder).
(NOTE: I made up that part about the ancient Hindu swamis, but the lesson still stands).
As a word-munching kiddo I used to read until I fell asleep every night. No Berenstain Bear book was safe from my crayon-smeared fingers. My mom would know I’d conked out because she’d hear the books thump against the carpet as they fell from my hand.
I loved to read. Still do. But even as a novelist and online wordsmith, reading sometimes feels like a slog to get through. I get smartphone-faced, too. I find myself falling into slumps, distracted by the circus of social media, or the impulsive need to Google stuff. Or I just get bored or don’t have the time.
Then comes the awul guilt for not reading from my inner finger-wagger. A cardinal sin for writers.
To be fair, not everyone has the time to get absorbed into a book as they’d like. And to be even more fair, there are a lot of bad books out there not worth even looking at. The New York Times Bestsellers list is less a list of quality than a ranking of which sales team did the best marketing for their product.
If you’re struggling with staying focused on reading these days, it’s important first to get over any guilty feelings you may have. Reading is all about learning, and there are a ton of mediums you can use to do that. Not just books. Losing temporary interest in reading could just be your brain’s way of saying it wants to try other means of data extraction.
When I was in college, I remember a student submitted a thesis asserting that people can learn history or other topics just as well through gaming as they can through researching books, using immersive MMORPGs, and historical-themed games as examples. His case study revealed that both the gamer and the reader retained information about equally. Which is great news, as I can finally call myself an Oregon Trail historian like I’ve always wanted.
Here are a few ways that can help you “read” without reading.
Most everyone is aware of Amazon’s Audible program, which offers thousands of audiobooks on its platform. But there are also numerous audiobooks available for free on YouTube. Everything from classic books, to big name authors like Stephen King, to cult hits like Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. In addition, there are tons of nonfiction bestsellers on there, like The Richest Man in Babylon.
If you don’t have the time or energy to read a book the old fashioned way, just type in a title and enter “audiobook” afterward into YouTube’s search bar. Chances are it’s on there, and narrated by a professional.
Everyone and their grandmother has a podcast these days. Which is awesome, because it virtually guarantees there will be something out there you’ll be interested in, no matter how small the niche or audience. True crime stories are really popular. But you’ve also got scary/paranormal stories that are getting big.
One of my favorite types of podcasts are behind the scenes ones for shows I like. I used to listen to the Better Call Saul podcast after each episode until the series finale aired. If you’ve got a favorite TV show or movie, chances are either the cast or crew has started a supplementary podcast. Or fans are still talking about it. Even shows that have been off the air for years, like The Office, have ongoing podcasts run by some of the cast members, such as Office Ladies.
Another favorite podcast of mine is Inside of You by Michael Rosenbaum, the actor best known for playing Lex Luthor on Smallville. Rosenbaum mainly interviews actors and other celebrities in a kind of therapist-on-the-couch manner, focusing on the psychological impact of fame and the grind of Hollywood. He’s even interviewed his former Smallville co-star Tom Welling, aka Superman. Times are tough when Lex Luthor is counseling the Man of Steel.
YouTube/TikTok Book Summaries
Sort of the Cliff Notes version books. These channels are increasingly becoming more popular, as people are interested in learning about what’s out there, but may not have the time to get deeply invested in any particular topic.
TikTok’s “BookTok” community has actually become so large and influential that its creating New York Times Bestsellers. Madeline Miller’s book The Song of Achilles became a viral breakout hit this year. I wrote about BookTok in an article awhile back. It’s becoming the place to go to not only learn about new books, but get reviews and summaries for genres you might be interested in, and even market your own stuff. Sometimes the best part about “reading” isn’t the actual reading, but discussing what you’ve read with likeminded people.
Read Aloud Feature on Medium/MS Word
Automated, or “AI” voices have made some progress in mimicking human speech. Medium’s read aloud feature sounds close enough that it doesn’t throw you off that much.
MS Word also has a good AI voice under the “Review” tab. I find using that feature is a good way to proofread, or get a sense of the flow of a document. But if you’re a busy professional, let’s say, and you’ve got briefs and other docs to read, using the Review AI voice could be a good way to save time while you do other things around the house.
In addition, there’s been a growing number of YouTube channels that summarize the news or particular subject interests, creating condensed and quickly digestible pieces. Altcoin Daily, for instance, covers a wide swath of cryptocurrency news and distills it all into a nicely condensed daily video. Then you’ve got pop culture channels like YellowFlash2, that talk about current events, with some added colorful commentary.
Go Back to Favorites You’ve Loved
Of course, you don’t have to go the headphones-and-listen-electronically route. You can go right back to physical books, which still exist believe it or not.
If you’re in an anti-reading rut, or stuck in that bizarre fog where the very idea of reading seems impossible, it doesn’t hurt to go back to the books you once read and enjoyed before. The books that may have inspired you to get into reading in the first place. Many people credit the Harry Potter books with that. While I’ve moved on from the Berenstain books, I’ll always enjoy a good Stephen King or Ira Levin novel.
Try Another Medium of Writing
Such as screenplays. So many scripts of classic or popular films are available on the web. You can get scripts for The Terminator all the way up to the latest Best Picture winner. Every year a certain number of unproduced screenplays are chosen for the Black List, and they’re almost always available for download. The 2021 Black List selections are all available here, for instance. And if you’re reading this year’s unproduced scripts, you’ll be aware of new films coming out before anyone else.
It’s also really instructive to the creative process. Screenplays are basically blueprints. It can be really cool to see how a movie starts from the page and progresses through the filming process. You get to see earlier drafts of stories before they were changed for the screen. For instance, in the original Alien script by Dan O’Bannon, the entire crew was male, including Ripley.
You can also try fan fiction, which has become pretty huge. Fifty Shades of Grey started off as Twilight fan fiction, and that worked out well for everyone. Or not.
Join a Book Club (Online or In-Person)
This can be a good way to force some accountability into your regular reading habit, though it may be more time-intensive than the previous methods. There are many book clubs on Facebook, of course. But usually your local library will be the place to go for in-person clubs.
If there’s not one in your area, consider starting one yourself. It could not only be a great way to discover new books, but meet new people.
Hopefully, these seven methods will help restart your drive to read. The world’s unfortunately become filled with zombies addicted to glowing rectangles with vibrant flashing images. Time will tell the kind of damage that will do to the human brain on an evolutionary scale, though we already know attention spans have shrunk to microscopic levels for many.
Spending time deep in a book is an increasingly lost art. It helps strengthen focus, foster critical thinking, and can create an appreciation for language and imagination. Social media and video may provide a pleasurable jolt of dopamine, but the effect is superficial and temporary. Those forms of data distribution also tend to be passive. They deaden and hypnotize the thoughts and senses. Whereas a good book (fiction or non) can be like stoking a fire inside your mind. Massive movements, revolutions, whole empires, have sprung from written works like the Bible or The Communist Manifesto. I don’t see the booty shakers on TikTok inspiring a lot of meaningful social change.
Even if some of the above solutions aren’t technically “reading,” they may help to put you back on a better path toward active learning and data processing. And that’s something we could all use more of these days.