Saturday, March 29, 2008

On Losing the Stamina to Finish a Book

Stephen McGinty, over at, has written a tongue-in-cheek column in which he laments his ever-decreasing ability to finish a book of any length. It seems that over the last few years he has found himself abandoning every book that he starts long before he finishes it. At first, it was only long novels that he couldn't finish; now he says he is having a difficult time making it all the way even through 15-page short stories.

But McGinty has found a bright spot in his decreasing level of concentration: he has something in common with today's young people.
"Yet I take comfort in knowing that my own brand of functional illiteracy has brought me closer to the youth of today who, according to a new report, are also finding it easier to put a book down than pick a book up."
There is new concern that all the online reading of blogs and short pieces that young people are doing nowadays has decreased their ability to concentrate on one subject long enough to finish an entire book. Sue Palmer, a literary consultant quoted in the piece, explains the concern this way:
"By reading a book, you are building up the stamina to absorb words for a longer period of time. What you are doing is gradually locking brains with the author, which you do not really do in quite the same way when you read chunks of a magazine or chunks of text on a screen. This personal interaction going on in your head is that thing that's special about reading a book and the pleasure of that is what, in the end, turns someone into a reader."
That's an interesting thought. I can only speak for myself, of course, and I admit that my reading habits were firmly in place a few decades before I began to spend so much time on the internet. About the only change in my reading habits that I've noticed is a tendency to read anywhere from six to 10 books at the same time, reading in chunks of 25-35 pages and moving on to another partially read book. That might very well be the result of my internet usage, but it comes more from being exposed to so many great books that I would have missed out on completely in the "old days" than from any new inability to concentrate on the written word for long stretches of time. Now, I'm always excited about starting a new book and I find that I can't be bothered to read them one-at-a-time.

Oddly enough, I think this relatively new habit of mine ensures that I get more out of most books than I would have gotten out of them by reading them singly. I don't find myself daydreaming the way I used to and having to go back to reread four or five pages to see what in the world I had just missed. Now, if that starts to happen, I know it's time to put one book down and pick up the next one in the stack. I probably shouldn't admit it but I even go so far as to place the last book read from on the bottom of the stack and only pick it up again when it is back on top. I almost always get to each of the books on any given day and, more importantly, I never seem to get bored with them.


  1. I read more than one book at a time nowadays myself, but it's more because the material is too much to take in all at once (non fiction pretty much) or the book I'm reading is too heavy to lug around and read in various downtimes throughout the day.

    The actual length of a novel isn't what deters me. There are some 200 page books that take an eternity to get through and there are 600 pagers that I barely notice the passage of time.

  2. I used to only read 2-3 books at a time, but I do read more books simultaneously now. Well, I start more, but there are some that I begin and can't help but read all the way through.

    As Carrie mentions it is less the length than the content for me. Nonfiction is always slower, but a whopping good tale of 700+ pages can fly by.

  3. I, too, now read several books at once, but sometimes one of the books grabs me so completely that I can't read anything else at the same time. My biggest problem is choosing what to read next from a large TBR pile. I'm like some very picky eater in a restaurant who can't find exactly what they fancy on the menu. I pick a book up, read a few pages, then decide to leave it for another time: sometimes it takes me four or five attempts before I hit on the one I want.
    I like the Sue Palmer quote "gradually locking brains with the author" that is so true.

  4. I was going to say, I think it's less that there are fewer books I can finish than that there are fewer books worth finishing. So many critics/literary folks blame the attentions span of readers, but I think we're actually becoming better readers, which means we're noticing that more books are crap (and therefore not wasting our time on them).

  5. Carrie, it sounds as if your simultaneous reading of multiple books is for more practical reasons than mine. I drive to work and only have to carry the books to the car so size doesn't bother me...I just get antsy about starting the next one and can't help myself.

    That does tend to backfire sometimes because I'll finish four or five books in a couple of days and get way behind on writing up my comments on them for the blog. I do wish I could space the "finishes" out a little better.

  6. Jenclair, it's kind of surprising to me how rare it is for a book to to impress me so much that it comes out of "rotation" and I read until its done. I wish it would happen more often, in fact, because that would indicate that I'm getting my hands on some really great books.

    I agree with you about the number of pages...some very long books go really quickly; some short ones take forever.

  7. Herschelian, I have a similar problem when it comes to choosing the next book from the stack...since I'm almost always adding to the stack quicker than pulling from it, the problem is getting worse and worse.

    There's just something exciting about starting a new book that can't be beat and that's why I end up with so many going at once, usually something to fit just about any possible mood that I could ever be in.

  8. You know, Will, I think you're onto something with that thought. The more I read, the fewer books I rate at "5.0," the highest number on my ranking scale. I noticed that happening a few years ago and the trend continues so maybe it really is that I'm finally getting to be a better reader and harder to please.

    I can certainly tell which books are definitely "crap" without reading them at all or for more than a handful of pages. I'm much harder to fool than I used to be.