Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Lost in a Good Book

One major benefit of my PTSD diagnosis and treatment has been a restored ability to read for pleasure. As I wrote last year in “Reading Again,”

I can’t remember a time before I was a voracious reader. As a child I would sit on the heating vent in the corner of our living room, reading books for hours. I once negotiated with the Tooth Fairy to get the next installment of my favorite Enid Blyton series instead of cash. I have cut myself shaving because I couldn’t put down my book.  

My whole family and extended family are also notorious readers. You will walk into a room and find multiple Leishmans or Phillipses, each sitting silently with his or her book.  

These days visitors to our house once again are likely to find me curled up with a good book. Unfortunately, the only time you’ll see the whole family sitting together reading is after dinner, during mandatory reading time.

No one would describe any of my three adopted children as a reader. This may be evidence of the power of nature over nurture. It could also be the impact of growing up addicted to cellphones and other electronics. Or just generational rebellion.

Fortunately, I’ve observed enough examples of my children taking pleasure in reading that I haven’t given up hope. I try to be flexible about reading time, and I look for opportunities to match each kid with books that speak to them.

I’ve also thought about other people’s confessions that they don’t read, or that they dislike reading. The most common reason is that they see reading as a chore – an unpleasant school-related task. That’s definitely what my kids would say.

Many nonreaders also believe that when they get bogged down in some book they're not allowed to start another until they finish the first one. This is nonsense. I’m usually in the middle of several books myself, switching between them to suit my current mood.

I also ruthlessly abandon books without finishing them. Sometimes I recognize within a few pages that we’re not a good fit. Other times I get distracted by other books or life, and never get back to them. If I still think a book has potential, I’ll give it multiple chances to speak to me. Certain highly recommended books deserve frequent flyer miles for being carried around the country unread. (I’m looking at you, Wolf Hall). Once in a while I’ll return to a book years later and discover we’re finally ready for each other. It’s like friendship or dating. Chemistry is unpredictable.

So I’m taking things gently with my kids and reading. I don’t want them to turn into one of those adults – a shocking percentage of the population – who never read, because they still can’t make themselves finish that last book they started in high school.

In the 1970s, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi became fascinated as he observed artists who got lost in their work. He coined the term “flow,” which refers to a mental state of “complete immersion in an activity.”

Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Csíkszentmihályi and his colleagues have identified ten indications you are in a flow state. One in particular leapt out at me:  

Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.

Sounds a lot like reading to me.

As I’ve previously discussed in various blog posts, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers a useful model of how our brains rely on two contrasting mental processors, which I've referred to as Thing 1 and Thing 2. The first system is fast and automatic, constantly multi-tasking as it retrieves memories and generates intuitions. In contrast, the second system allocates our brains’ limited conscious attention to effortful mental tasks. Thing 2 would prefer to lazily coast along with the information and assumptions it receives from Thing 1.

Humans’ big brains suck up much more energy than the rest of our organs. In particular, it turns out we have a very limited supply of fuel available for Thing 2’s two most important tasks:  deliberate thought and self control.

According to Kahnemen, the intensely productive flow state is possible because “Flow neatly separates the two forms of attention: concentration on the task and the deliberate control of attention.” What sets flow apart from other mental activities is that our brain doesn't need to waste any of its precious fuel on keeping itself on task:

Riding a motorcycle at 150 miles an hour and playing a competitive game of chess are certainly very effortful. In a state of flow, however, maintaining focused attention on these very absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.

Because I love to read, I seldom have to apply any self-discipline to the task. Instead, I quickly achieve a pleasurable flow state, and lose track of time.

In contrast, during reading time my children will repeatedly ask how much time we have left. From my point of view, rudely forced out of flow, it seems like I just answered the same question seconds ago. For them, five minutes of reading seems interminable.

Reading is a relatively new human phenomenon. As I observed last month in “Pandemonium,”

Over the eons, each of the components of our uniquely powerful brains evolved together, and made us distinctively human. These include our capacities for consciousness and language, as well as our deep mental programming for traits like tribalism, altruism, music, and religion. 

In contrast with our pre-wired brain functions, reading is practically brand new – only about 5,000 years old. The invisible hand of natural selection hasn’t had time to tweak the human genome in the few hundred years since literacy became widespread. Instead, our brains have repurposed innate neural structures to accomplish the strange modern task of reading words on a page.

Reading takes your whole brain. Sometimes that’s still not enough.

This month my mother decided she was finally ready for a new phone. She is not a gadget person. But she’d grown frustrated with the frequent “limited memory available” messages. The folks at the AT&T store were impressed to find someone still using an operational iPhone 5c. (I didn't tell them we were planning to erase all her photos, and give the old iPhone to my dad as an upgrade from his flip phone.)

Reading is like running new software on old hardware. It uses up virtually all the processing capacity of the human brain, leaving nothing left for self-discipline. So don’t trying forcing yourself to read. It probably won’t work anyway. Instead, go find the right book for right now.

Here’s the updated list of books I’ve finished reading so far in 2018:

Bruce Handy, Wild Things: the Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult
William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?
Robert Wright, The Moral Animal
Isaac Asimov, Foundation
Angelika Huston, Watch Me
Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name
Joe Hagen, Sticky Fingers
Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain
Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
David Sedaris, Theft By Finding
Mary Karr, Lit
Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland
Mark Ausiello, Spoiler Alert: the Hero Dies
Tina Brown, The Vanity Fair Diaries
Marie Phillips, The Table of Less Valued Knights
Robert Nye, The Late Mr. Shakespeare
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members
Roger Ebert, Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook
Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
Michelle Dean, Sharp
Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Sheryl Sandberg, Option B
Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair
Michael Chabon, Pops
Stephen McCauley, My Ex-Life
Stephen Goldblatt, Tyrant
Anjelika Huston, A Story Lately Told
Ethan Nichtern, The Dharma of Princess Bride
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
Andrew Greer, Less
Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Ken Jennings, Planet Funny
Robert Lacey, The Crown
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge?
Dan Harris, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics
Robert Heinlein, Double Star
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Ursula K. Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea
Anne McCaffery, Dragonsinger
Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Other Wind
Ursula K. Le Guin, Words are my Matter
Christopher Buckley, The Relic Master
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind
Julie Schumacher, The Shakespeare Requirement
Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years
Ursula K. Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl
Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu
P.G. Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan
P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

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