By Sharon Glassman
Focused reading can feel like a perfect first kiss. There’s the tingle of attraction. The approach. The pause. Followed by full contact with the supple-yet-strong words of: “Oh, wow! My iPad just beeped! Should I make some iced tea?”
Unfocused reading can feel like a foreign language lesson punctuated with fire drills. How can we boost our reading focus in a busy, buzzy age? Below are tips from folks who know:
Focused Reading Tip: “Bridge The Language Gap”
Anne E. Cunningham, literacy expert/co-author of Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers (Oxford University Press, 2014),
“Reading is like thinking,” says Professor Cunningham, a developmental psychologist specializing in literacy across the life span at University of California, Berkeley. “And thinking is hard.”
Did you smile or think, “Oh!” when you read Cunningham’s words?
To get that smile or a-ha!, our brain translated visual shapes into word-phrases that informed, awed or amused us. When words and pages fly by, we’re in a state of flowing, focused reading. We’re creating and linking packets of meaning. Pictures and ideas pulse through our head.
But getting to this point isn’t simple, Cunningham explains. Part of the reason is that printed words don’t provide the audio-visual clues we derive from conversational speech. With spoken language, “You see the person’s face, their hands,” she says. “We’re more hard-wired for this.”
“Decontextualized language is much more challenging. We’re dealing with past, present, future, fictional.”
Contextualized speech is built for ease and survival. (We shout, “Fire!” when the room’s on fire. We don’t craft a prose-poem about it.) Decontextualized language is a brain-builder. It’s the complex carbohydrate of language, to mix a metaphor. Slower to digest. With valuable health benefits. Especially if you plan on growing old.
Focused reading creates mental file cabinets full of quality information that we can access long down the road. It forges neural pathways. It opens our mind, tickles our fancy. The key to focused reading, Cunningham says, is: “efficiency and engagement.” So. How can we bridge the gap from spoken language to efficient reading?
Professor Cunningham recommends dialogic reading. It’s a technique used to help children learn to read by asking questions that connect spoken speech to written speech. But dialog reading practices like these can help seasoned readers, too:
Book Group discussions: Talking about a book’s contents uses spoken language to question and clarify book-language, lessening the reader/book language gap. (This technique works for those who haven’t read the book yet, Cunningham notes.)
Interval training: This is a one-on-one form of dialogic reading where we read a very short number of pages – less than we think we can, and review (ie: ask ourselves) what we’ve read. Repeated exposure to the written word bridges the gap. Setting a super-achievable reading goal and achieving it builds confidence. Repetition builds reading strength.
Audio books: Hearing a book read aloud allows us to process words that may appear dauntingly dense on the printed page.
She’s currently listening to, Capital by Thomas Piketty on Audible.
“This is much more pleasant than having to go through this on my own,” she says, of the experience.
Focused Reading Tip: “Keep the Noise at Bay”
David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times book critic and author of The Lost of Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Age (Sasquatch Books, 2010).
David Ulin is a professional reader. His job ranks second on my personal list of dream occupations, right after Chocolate Taster. But full-time reading – with an aspect of public responsibility – can raise focus issues, too.
Ulin’s book about the challenges of modern reading started as an essay on the subject, requested by his editor at The LA Times. At the time, he recalls, “I wasn’t finishing books because I was assigning them.” Ulin was reading just enough of a book to determine it merited a review, at which point, he’d turn it over to a reviewer. His job demanded it. But his book-lover’s soul was suffering.
Adding to his focus interruptus? His inbox was ever-full. Facebook posts were flowing and Tweets were arriving. “It’s so easy for us to communicate,” Ulin says, about our social media-infused culture. And lots of people would like to reach him, in particular.
The time it took to field incoming e-communications was time subtracted from potential book-reading time. Some were urgent. Others were personal. All asked to be read.
How could a conscientious person refuse? By changing the balance between what comes in and what he takes in. “It’s better for me now,” Ulin says.
Here are David Ulin’s best practices for focused reading in a soc media world. Feel free to tweak to suit your reading style – and challenges:
”Step away from the interactive screen”:; Ulin checks to see that everything in his inbox can wait til he re-emerges from “book-time.” If it can, he starts reading. If it can’t, he answers the urgent mail, clearing the deck for focused reading.
If you’re going to read, read with purpose: If you’re going to screw around, screw around with a purpose. Trying to focus on a book while you’re wondering if your Tweet got favorited is like having sex while riding a bike (this is my analogy – as yet untested.)
Ulin checks out his friends’ posts and like their photos on Facebook for finite periods. He socializes in the real-world to the degree that’s comfortable for him. He values his time with his family.
But when it’s time to read? He dives into something he calls “industrial reading.” An industrial reading session, for Ulin, can last twelve hours or more. And that’s a good thing.
“Books are long-form expressions of someone else’s intelligence,” he says. It makes sense to give them long-form attention. And it’s pleasurable, too.
Find out what your weaknesses are and distancing yourself from them: Ulin is distracted by an open browser. He craves uninterrupted stretches of book-time. His solution? Reading prone, in a computer-free room with his dog for company.
But whatever helps you create a true reading space will work.
“It’s about trying to be fully in one thing,” he says of his focused reading practices. “The art only comes to life if the recipient is an engaged participant in the back and forth.”
Focused Reading Tip: “Connect your brain to a coffee shop”
Ace Callwood, Co-founder, Coffitivity.com
Now that I’ve sold you on David Ulin’s model of noise-free, industrial-strength reading, meet Ace Callwood. Callwood and his partner, Justin Kauszler, were young entrepreneurs working at their alma-mater Virginia Commonwealth University, when they had their A-ha! moment. They’d written a great business plan working in a local coffee shop. Something about the buzz and clatter of the place helped their minds focus. That something turned out to be a constant 70-decibel sound-scape. The sound jump-started their brains’ creative power.
When Kauszler’s boss refused to let him work in the coffee shop to complete a new assignment, he and Callwood decided to bring the noise to their computers. The rest is tech history.
(With one interruption: Callwood’s initial response to Kauszler’s suggestion that they build a coffee-shop noise web site was, “That’s a stupid idea.” Enter: the scientific study that Justin showed Ace. Which leads us here.)
“In a past life, I did music and engineering in college,” says Callwood, who’s in his almost mid-20s. He went to work “taking out some of the really loud stuff” from the coffee shop chatter and clatter they recorded. This background noise was so helpful as a creative focus tool, that the pair played a demo version as they built their site.
“We used Coffitivity raw audio to build and code and design the site. It’s super-meta, right?” Callwood comments.
How does Coffitivity relate to reading focus? I can’t read in a real-world coffee shop. But I’ve become addicted to Coffitivity as a reading-focus booster at home. Like David Ulin, I love to read sprawled on my bed with my dog. But when the noise at home cuts into my focus (a bluegrass band practicing in our downstairs living room, to name one example), Coffitivity saves the day.
Ace Callwood says that Coffitivity was designed as an app “for creating things, making things. Helping people work and make, more than helping them digest.”
And yet it works for reading.
Does this mean that reading is a creative act? It’s a fun question to ponder, in theory. But reading to Coffitivity works, practically. “I do use Coffitivity when I read, when I’m in an environment where I need to block out noise,” co-founder Callwood says. “I use it in the coffee shop,” he confesses. “Getting high on my own supply.”
But sometimes, even the best-made plans go awry. Focused reading may not be rewarded. “I’m in the middle of Think and Grow Rich,” Callwood says. “Someone recommended it to me. But I’m finding all the chapters say the same thing.” He may not finish the book.
Another book on Callwood’s list? The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferris. He’d like to know what Ferriss’s book says. But he’s hoping to outsource the intake. “I’m trying to get Justin to read it,” Callwood says. “I don’t see why we both have to read things.”
But when we do choose to read, isn’t it nice to know we can focus?
Sharon Glassman is the author of the novel-with-songs Blame it on Hoboken. She performs and sings episodes of her book live, helping readers bridge the gap between spoken and written words in a fun way. Sharon wrote this article while listening to Coffitivity.com’s “Morning Murmur” coffee-shop sound mix.