The year was 2004, my mother and I had just finished reading a few chapters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We had finished the first three books while we were abroad and had put down the fourth book a few weeks earlier. My mother kisses me good night and had left to go to bed. I was about nine or ten years old so I was going to bed pretty early, or so my parents thought. As soon as I heard my mother’s footsteps reach the top of the stairs and die down, my bedside lamp went on. It was time to read ahead.
The rush I got from reading into the late hours (10 pm was late for me at that time), could be equated to that of the rush of going down a roller coaster or having your first kiss. Becoming immersed in the world of fantasy and seeing the words written on the page come to life was amazing. The fear that would strike through me as I heard my parents coming down the stairs to make sure I was asleep, was like watching a horror movie. Within the first footstep, the book would shoot under my pillow and the lamp would go out. My heartbeat rises and my breath becomes shallow as if a scary monster was coming to get me. As I heard the footsteps go back up the stairs and then die down, the lamp was turned back on, and the book was out from under the pillow.
Let’s go forward six years. I’ve just entered high school, and I’ve received my first laptop. The books I would read began to dwindle like a candle at the end of its wick. I became incredibly immersed in watching complete nonsense on YouTube into the middle of the night. Two years later, I received my first smartphone and by then, I had completely forgotten how to read. From then to the present, I would pick up a book, read a few chapters and then never pick it up again. I would completely forget where I was and what had happened even just a week later. I remember picking up the same book, Inheritance, and reading the same chapter over and over again over the course of a month because I would get distracted.
What caused my decline in reading? Technology. As Cal Newport mentions in his book, Deep Work, “throughout this period, Allen never owned a computer”. I never had a computer, nor any other type of technology. Once I got my first piece of technology, the decline began. Even if I’m not using it, it’s in the corner of my room, watching me, mocking me. Just the slightest look, at whatever piece of technology it is, draws my attention and ruins my deep work. What used to be a distraction-free zone, became one filled with distractions (technology).
“Deep work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate”.
We simply cannot perform our best work with technology in the same room as of. To perform at our best we need to put ourselves in another room without distractions. Even the smallest bit of technology causes distractions, i.e. our cellphones. In one experiment, using about 800 people, it was discovered that those who had their phones in a separate room, when performing a certain task, had the best results. Those participants that had their phone on the desk, had their cognitive abilities on par with the effects of lacking sleep.
“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Four series have shaped my young adult life: Harry Potter, The Inheritance Series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and Heroes of Olympus. I’ve read each series through multiple times except The Inheritance Series (still haven’t finished the last book). They are some of my favorite books and yet I would still need to reread all of them in order to give you a good description of each one. What does this mean? Simply put, I’m a passive reader. “Passive readers forget almost everything they read, as quickly as they read them.” This was on full display for me, when I was reading Deep Work. I had to reread a few pages because I couldn’t retain what I had just read. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read.
If I forget what I read, does that mean I hate reading? No, absolutely not. It can cause some awkward situations though. If I’m talking to someone who has read the same book I have, how do I talk to them about it? This phenomenon is called the Cocktail Party Trap. This situation can best be described as someone mentions a book you have read, but you can’t recall too much information on it to have a conversation about it. An example of this for me was, I had a conversation with a girl how loved Percy Jackson and the Olympians as much as I did, but she read them more recently. All I could say was, they were great books. I really enjoyed reading them.
So how does one become an active reader? Well for starters, get rid of your phone. You’re never going to be able to fully appreciate what you’re reading with your phone nearby. Here are a few other tips that could help you in retaining what you read:
- Appreciate the book. Don’t just read books to read books. If you’re reading multiple books a week, you’re not fully appreciating what the book as to offer, and won’t remember all of the information you want to retain.
- Make it something you enjoy. I get it, school forces you to read certain books, and they can be a drag sometimes. If you start to build up your active reading skills beforehand, by reading books you enjoy, you’ll retain more information on your school books.
- Find your space. Find a nice, quiet, distraction-free, place to read. My room is nice and quiet, but I have a television, an Xbox, my laptop, and my phone in there. Go to a library. Yes, they still exist.
I wish you luck in your journey on becoming an active reader.