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I like reading. Why can’t I focus when I read anymore?

By Andrea Bunjamin

Andrea delves deep into Johann Hari’s new book Stolen Focus to find out why we’re all struggling to concentrate when we read nowadays.

For a lot of bookworms, reading is a gateway to let our minds run free. The stories I encountered as a child formed some of my fondest memories, and I can still remember the moment I eagerly graduated from picture books to novels. 

Although reading is a solitary activity, it’s easy to feel surrounded by friends when you’re journeying into fictional worlds. But over time, reading becomes a distant chore as we fall victim to the hectic demands of our busy lives. We can all relate to the frustrating agony of having to double back on a page over and over again. Words don’t seem to stick, and university readings become brutal slogs.  

To try and understand why this happens, I took a trip to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May. Setting aside my bruised intellectual ego, I listened intently as author Johann Hari’s introduced his new book, Stolen Focus, in which he details how our inability to focus has caused a severe collapse in sustained reading. Hari is known for his witty and personal expressions, combined with an unmatched capacity for worldwide research. In Stolen Focus, Hari compassionately argues that our inability to focus has been caused by powerful systems at play, rather than any individual’s failings. The book explores issues ranging from the disruption caused by mind-wandering to the rise of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  

Less than half of us now read for pleasure, and the number of people who do not read a single book in a year has drastically gone up. Reading takes time. It requires the dedication of long hours into a topic, followed by space to ponder and formulate organic opinions about what was just read.  

Hari introduces the psychological concept of a “flow state”, where our headspace is utterly absorbed in an activity because we simply want to do it rather than for the purpose of an endpoint or reward. His research shows reading is one of the most common and memorable ways people can achieve flow in their lives. Basically, we read for the journey and not the destination. Losing this intuitive ability would be gut-wrenchingly tragic for bookworms.  

Another reason behind our inability to focus is an increased reliance on navigating the Internet. Based on a two-decade landmark study, researchers noticed that reading through the medium of a screen has rewired us to perform a manic rapid skim and scan when digesting text. This impairs our ability to absorb each word in a steady, linear way that’s needed for flow, and over time, this default habit leeches into the way we interact with paperback books too. In the same study, it was shown that people who were presented with information from a printed book were able to remember and articulate its contents better than others who absorbed the same text via a screen. This impulse was coined as ‘screen Inferiority’ and explains why some of us go through short-term amnesia after reading a paragraph.  

While reading this chapter, I realised that a lot of Hari’s observations described the baseline ingredients for how misinformation spreads. If we assume that complex topics can be understood quickly from a series of Twitter posts, what does that say about our ability to identify diverse and reliable sources? 

This only increases the importance of the printed book as an irreplaceable medium. As Hari says, learning to digest someone else’s ideas strengthens our empathy muscles in the long-term. When interviewing psychologist Raymond Mar, he found that individuals who read more literary novels were able to better read other people’s emotions and social signals, especially in the case of children.  

Any readers of Hari’s previous books such as Chasing the Scream (2015) would recognise that his writing style resembles a rebellious call-to-action concerning the systemic problems he describes. His anti-self help approach aligns with a compassionate preference to retrain our focus on collective struggles. It’s up to society to take baby steps and recover our imagination and sense of wonder.  

You can find Stolen Focus at Dymocks, Target, Big W, Kmart or online at Booktopia or BookDepository.