07 November 2012


I miss reading books. I used to read so many books. I read all the time. When I was in the Peace Corps, I frequently had days that looked like this:

wake up

Those were great days.

What I fear is that even if I had a day like that now—I day I consciously devoted to setting aside other things in favor of doing nothing but reading—I don't think I could sustain concentration long enough to make it happen. For starters, I'd fall asleep. But even if I were well rested, the way my mind works has changed so much in the past number of years (10? 15?) that I don't think it would work.

John's illness was the first thing that I recall having a significant impact on my ability to sustain concentration over long periods of time. So much of my brain was immediately mobilized (ack, military imagery associated with illness: something I try to avoid, but it is ubiquitous!) to thinking about his illness, his treatment, our life, the future, that little was left for anything else. I craved the escapist aspects of reading, but it was all I could to to make it through an article in People, much less focus and digest an entire novel.

Parenting certainly dealt my concentration another significant blow. When I wasn't thinking about John, I was thinking about Maddie and Riley. And I was just so damn tired all the time. The only reading I did during those early years was for work, and that, too, was a struggle. At the time, I worked as an editor in educational publishing, doing everything from developmental work with authors to line editing and proofreading of colleagues' projects. I apologize to my employer for what was certainly a significant amount of errors that appeared in my publications during that time.

I thought that over time, my concentration would come back, but if anything, I'd say it's gotten worse, at least in regards to reading. I have nothing but gut feelings and anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I think media plays a role in this. Starting with 140 character Tweets, moving through Facebook status updates, passing by generally short blog posts, up to news articles online or in print when you can find them, the writing I encounter in my day to day life is not long. Maybe that was true before, but there's just so much more of it than there was back in the day—and in Peace Corps there was pretty much none of it. In the Peace Corps days, it was a book or nothing. Now it's everything but a book, and I feel like that's changed the way my brain interacts with print.

Does anyone out there know of research that backs this up? Does anyone have similar feelings? Does anyone have tips on how to cultivate that concentration? I'd like to get it back. As a step in that direction, I'm working on being more mindful of the time I spend interacting with social media, especially in the evenings. I already watch very little TV, but I'm also trying to remind myself that I could read for 45 minutes rather than watch another episode of Grey's Anatomy on Netflix (oh, Grey's, I just can't quit you).

I'm also interested in how to encourage that deep, long concentration in Maddie and Riley. They already have it to a certain extent; their capacity for listening to me read aloud is limited only by my ability to keep going, and they love audiobooks. They are making great strides in reading on their own, and I hope that once that truly comes together for them, they will spend hours and hours and hours reading as I did until my late 20s. I look forward to family reading time in the evenings, each with our own book and I certainly plan to keep reading aloud to them until they decide they don't want me to (which research shows might not happen for a long time, if ever).

One last call: book recommendations, for me or for me to read to Maddie and Riley. The kids and I are about to finish up the Harry Potter series, and we have a solid collection of kids' classics, but I'm not well versed on newer chapter books for the younger set. Do tell: what have I been missing?


Angela @ Fit Fun Mom said...

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin was a favorite family read-aloud of ours and my 7-year-old still likes to listen to the audiobook version.

After Harry Potter my kids liked all the Rick Riordan books starting with the Percy Jackson series. Those audiobooks are a hoot too.

Rachel said...

My daughter really loved the Pseudonymous Bosch secret series. I read a lot of YA. I read literary fiction too, but YA fills my need for escape at the end of long, stressful days. Are you on Good Reads? I get recommendations there.

mek said...

We are loving the Sisters Grimm series right now - as well as Little House and the Franny K. Stein series (little girl mad scientist? oh yes, please!). I also recommend the Lunch Lady series of graphic novels for kids! We are going to add in the Series of Unfortunate Events soon, too.

I too have fond, fond memories of reading all. day. long.

I feel like I stopped reading in earnest the year the husband was working in another state. Now I am making an effort to be a more visible reader - I remember as a child seeing my mom, especially, reading often.

And as much as I am loving how much Cora loves to read on her own...I wish it were happening during normal waking hours and not during her insomnia zone (2-5am).

Anonymous said...

I find myself in the same boat. Law school pretty much killed my desire to read for pleasure -- when you do it 12 hours a day to prepare for class, it is hard to read for fun when you are finished. It took me more than 5 years before I could read anything longer than a magazine article -- and then the kids came along.

My kids are 11 and 8 and I find that I am starting to enjoy reading for pleasure again -- not as much as I did in my twenties, but a dozen books or so in a year. Once your children get a little older and a bit more independent, you may find yourself drifting back to it. Hang in there.

Michèle Hastings said...

I have found that my reading time has been an ebb and flow throughout the years. Much depending on what life is dishing out or demanding at any given time. Lately it seems to take me weeks to finish a book, whereas in the past, I could devour one in a matter of days.
My daughter is now 33 years old, therefore I have no insight of current books for reading aloud with young children. I do know, that she and I enjoyed reading Alice in Wonderland together.

Christie said...

icI started the 52 books a year challenge three years ago. I had one successful year, one less so. This year it'll be close. I try to set aside time to read and always carry a book. I've learned it helps tremendously to have a book that grabs my interest and makes me want to read more. If I have to slog through it, it is going to take me half a year and I still might not finish. I often have more than one book I'm reading at the same time. This used to bother me and I didn't do it much when I was younger, but I like being able to select which book to read based on my mood. A couple of books I'd recommend include:
1. Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas story (had me laughing so hard I actually cried in some parts)
2. John Grisham's Calico Joe (I can't say I'm a huge baseball fan but I absolutely loved this book)
3. An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer
4. Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers (Rapture-like event leaves various peoples on earth)
5. The Hearts of Horses by ... someone I can't remember and am too lazy to look up
6. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (it's a big one but well worth the effort)

Hen and I have a few more books to finish up - Alice in Wonderland and Chomp by Carl Hiaasen - and then I hope to start Harry Potter! It'll be the sixth or seventh time I've read the series! :)

Good luck! Reading is awesome and it's great that you are opening up that world for M & R.

Anonymous said...

You should try the Percy Jackson series. Your two may be a little young for it, but they are similar in terms of structure and content to the Potter series so may catch their interest.

My 6 year old loved the first one. My 10 year old is burning her way through them. We are just reading the Harry Potter series ourselves and are loving reading them aloud at night.

hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks. Oh my. It's the first of three in a series. The first two are spectacular; the third, not so much.

The Doll People is laugh-out-loud funny. Every child I've ever read it to howled.

I am a reading teacher, and I read constantly until menopause. Then my concentration went to hell and has yet to return. I hate it.

SarahB said...

Yes. I know exactly what you are talking about. I find that I need a book that grabs me hard, so that the enjoyment keeps me going.

As for finding a way to refocus your attention, I'd recommend a solo cross-country flight, just you and a book, but I doubt that is in your future, so someone else suggest something please.

Stacy said...

I can so relate to this post regarding concentration. When I had my first child in 2004 she was born with a whole host of medical issues. My focus was terrible. Then she died in 2005 from pneumonia and it really plummeted. I was working for a medical publisher as a medical editor during that time. Yeah, I'm sorry for my mistakes as well. THEN in 2007 I had twins. Good grief! This past year I have finally started reading again, but I can only do it on the train during my commute and I have to have a break in between my books. It frustrates me, but I accept it.

jbp said...

I just started reading The Mysterious Benedict Society to my 5 and 9 year olds. My 9 year old has been reading it in school. It seems slightly sophisticated for my younger daughter, but she is totally gripped by it, and the writing is really good! So I think it's at least worth checking out for your two.

And, for adults, I just read and REALLY enjoyed J.K. Rowlings' The Casual Vacancy. I know lots of people have given it mixed reviews, but I couldn't put it down - a GREAT (if pretty sad - but also very funny!) story.

Jan said...

My kids (now 7 and 8 1/2) and I worked our way through the entire Little House series last school year, and we loved it!

Victoria said...

I second those who have said Percy Jackson-those were great. I also really enjoyed the Fablehaven series, written by Brandon Mull. I believe it's 5 books long, and is also fantasy based. My 10 year old son just devoured The Last Dragon Chronicles series, so maybe I'll read those next since he and I tend to like a lot of the same stuff. Good luck!! Let us know what you choose next!

Ragtop Day said...

I recommend anything by Andrew Clements for the kids. My personal favorite is "Frindle" but they're all good!

Pre-kids my weekend days looked a lot like your Peace Corps days. It takes me forever to read a book now but I do miss it!

Sonia said...

Some books that my 8.5 yr old has read in the past year or so (he read HP on his own last year). I'd say that if HP was appropriate for your kids (level of tension, vocabulary, that sort of stuff), then these books will be fine:
*Aretemis Fowl series (Eoin Colfer)
*Mysterious Benedict Society
*Percy Jackson series
*39 Clues series
*any of Carl Hiaasen's children's books (and his adult ones are fabulous too, but def not for kids!)
*I am trying to get my son into the Peter and the Starcatcher series (co-written by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson) but so far he hasn't started them.
*Ramona series (Beverly Cleary)

Kim said...

What about the magic treehouse series. That's great for children of their age.

Kim said...

What about the magic treehouse series. That's great for children of their age.

Shadefarm said...

I too am a widow (6 years) and used to love to read. I have found that I also have a hard time concentrating on a book. I always have a book going beside my bed, but I don't finish them very quickly. I think it's because I still after 6 years, feel I carry the load of my home and my kids all on my shoulders and just can't let myself escape into a book like I used to. I also hope one day that my concentration will return.

OTRgirl said...

If you don't have a Kindle, I highly recommend it as a way to keep reading. It's just easy to carry and have a lot of variety with me. I'm also doing a neighborhood book club which makes me read 'adult' books. Otherwise, I only have the brain space for young adult, fantasy and romance. My brain definitely feels mushy these days.

Book Club books:
11/22/63 (interesting, but not high art),
The Art of Fielding (wonderful even for a non-baseball fan),
The Marriage Plot (meh),
Little Bee (heavy but interesting), The Tipping Point (factoids but interesting)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (totally compelling)

In terms of kid books. I agree with Percy Jackson. Those are a lot of fun, plus they teach a lot about the Greek gods/myths.

Classics we loved at that age (my Dad read to us):
The Great Brain series,
Little House,
Madeline L'Engle books,
The Witch of Coos (poem by Robert Frost that is like a short story),
George MacDonald (Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, The Wise Woman)

Meredith said...

I had the same problem with not being able to read. I connected it more to a lack of interest than a lack of concentration: I read a lot as a kid, but 32 straight years of school (last seven doing medical residency and with kids) made me think of books only as things to skim to absorb material for a test. It took about two years to get started again, but even now it's mostly kid's literature I read, for my kids and for myself.

I second a lot of the suggestions for kids here, especially the Percy Jackson and Great Brain series. And I can highly recommend two adult novels (no, not that kind of adult novel!) that I've read in the past few years. The first, Song of Achilles, was so good it made me cry, and is especially cool to read if you're reading Percy Jackson to the kids. The second is The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which just came out in English. Don't know how well it's translated, but the plot is fabulous. I'm thinking about lending it to my 11-year-old (who loves 20th-century history) - it's a book for all ages.

Debi said...

I used to devour books as a kid, teen, and young adult. Then at 27 I became a court reporter and have to read transcripts constantly. 25 years my only time to read is during lunch breaks and commuting with Books on Tape, which is the.best.thing.ever. It makes a miserable commute fun. Look into Audible.com. I put the books on my phone, and I paid $135 to install a plug coming from my car radio that plugs into the earphone hole on the phone and plays the books thru my car stereo. Worth every penny. Newer cars already can do this, but mine is a 2006. I just listened to The Chaperone (fantastic and so interesting) and am now on The Kitchen House, also very gripping from the beginning. I am also a single mom, and I love to read but there is always something else that needs to be done.

~lifedramatic~ said...
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~lifedramatic~ said...
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~lifedramatic~ said...
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~lifedramatic~ said...

I definitely recommend that you check out the Inkheart series by Cornelia Funke. I love those books. I think that the kids would love them too.

XO, Charlene

Flesworthy said...

I've been the same way over the past 8 or so years. My lifelong love of reading took a hit after I lost my first set of twins in 2004. It seemed my grief took away any ability to concentrate, and it's never fully returned. A second set of twins (who are now 5) probably hasn't helped, either. I've also wondered if all my time spent online has had a negative effect, too. In an effort to do something about it, I just bought a Nook. Maybe it's just the novelty of it, but I actually read a book this week! (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it was wonderful) It took a lot of effort, though. This all is a very long way of saying I totally related to this post.

Bob said...

Beverly Cleary is pretty dated in some ways, but they're still great first chapter books. They might also be ready for some Roald Dahl.