“At some time impossible to pinpoint, I had begun to read more to be informed than to be immersed, much less to be transported.”
—Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home:
The Reading Brain in a Digital World
My switch to skimming from reading was abrupt, spurred by anxiety. I had sent out some projects, which meant acceptances and rejections would be coming in unpredictable increments of 5 minutes (as one did) or in 11 months (as did another). It didn’t help that I had set myself a goal of 100 rejections for the year, as many writers do. That level of random expectation messed with my head, and instead of sinking for hours into fiction and nonfiction projects as I once did, suddenly I was hopping from one thing to the next in quick succession every hour.
The agony of the empty mailbox let to an especially strong impulse to linger on social media, where something was always being delivered—6,000 somethings every minute, which I could curate into feeds, share, or interact with in innumerable other ways until I felt connected and whole again. Only, of course, I had no control over what confronted me there. Stung by unexpected barbs from people who often did not even have me or people like me in mind as their main audience, my emotions would be thrown into total disarray, bleeding into the rest of my life long after I left the platform.
Now, I easily correlate my anxiety levels with how much and how deeply (or not) I read in that era of my life, which lasted about two years. Maryanne Wolf says she had to try twice to remember how to become immersed in a book she had once loved. The first attempt was a total failure, and the second attempt took two weeks before she settled into the rhythm and trust of moving at the pace the writer set instead of trying to rush ahead, skim, re-read the same long sentence over and over, or shove the book aside in frustration or boredom. In my case, I spent several months reading books a few pages at a time, in a circle, until I finally remembered how to get fully lost in the story again.
When I become immersed in books instead of skimming them or “reading to be informed,” I find myself settling into a familiar and enjoyable rhythm of reading, revision, reflection, and drafting in my own writing process. I tend to invest the effort into painstakingly copying passages from books I like into my journals. I forget to check messages. I spend less than 2 hours/day with access to social media. Every week, I experience at least one full day where I never get on social media at all. Ironically, I worry less about “missing out” or being “left behind” by the book community. Less pressured to buy the talked-about books of the moment, instead I’m buying the books I find most compelling based on the writing and subject matter itself, whether it’s a speculative novel, history, or religious studies, even if it is now considered “backlist” by the industry.
When I visit social media less often, the medium feels wildly different than when I have regular, continuous exposure all day every day. For context, consider that like a lot of people my age I lived a lifestyle that involved being on social media continuously since around 2003, along with blogging off and on for many years even before that. Most of that time, I was on Facebook. I deleted Facebook back in 2015 and stayed off social media entirely for two years, at which time I began my still-regular practice of handwriting all my novels, essays, and poetry in journals. I joined Twitter in 2017, a veritable whirlpool of continuous content by (at first) complete strangers, because I was told it was a good place to interact with the book community. That proved true, and I took to the form instantly. Probably at my deepest involvement, I posted something new every 15 minutes or less, a practice I didn’t relinquish until I established my current “social media lite” routine about 1 year ago.
My experience of the “social media-heavy” times was the sense of always paying partial attention to the people and world around me, but at the same time feeling hyper-aware of “Cassandra” the social media personality. Contrary to stereotypes of Millennials, I felt grounded by my social media network. You’re never alone when you can touch an app and open up a world of friends, acquaintances, and “fans.” I continually composed narratives about myself, as if I were a brand or public figure. I enjoyed this and felt it enabled me to form a strong personal worldview, but it became increasingly stressful to maintain as I became an adoptive parent and stopped traveling. “Cassandra the world traveler” and “Cassandra the budding religious studies scholar” seemed more exciting than “Cassandra the editor and parent in rural Idaho.” That’s not true in practice; my life is as full and vibrant and intellectually challenging as ever, but the work I’m doing is mapped onto a longer, slower arc than it was in my twenties, which is not conducive to social media updates, especially when as a parent I made the decision to protect my children’s privacy by restricting how much I shared about them.
How, then, does it feel to be on a restricted-access rhythm with only one social media platform? I was shocked to find that the conversations (“threads”) I once lived for have come to feel not only repetitive but often irrelevant to my actual experience of books, writing, publishing, and best practices for encouraging diversity and intercultural understanding (a frequent topic of discussion in the book community over the past few years). Is that because I’m doing a better job of weighing what I see against my own reservoir of knowledge? I think so.
One possible explanation is that after such long daily breaks, I’m not skimming the feed, at least not at first. I’m fixing onto single statements or threads and lingering with them. I tend to share them in group chats and direct messages with close friends, and spend a lot more time on whatever topic caught my attention. However, after about 20 minutes, my brain remembers how that continuous-exposure mentality felt. I can viscerally feel the shift from ordinary thought to the birdlike flutter of attention from one piece of ephemera to another.
I don’t like how this makes me feel, so I don’t keep social media on my phone at all, and since I can’t trust my brain to quit once it makes the switch, my computer is also programmed to cut off my access after an hour or so. It’s rare that I accomplish anything else in that hour, and I often need to take some deep breaths once I’m off the platform to clear my mind and let go of whatever statements people made that might have confused, provoked, or stunned me. My other strategy is to simply stay off the feed entirely and visit individual friends’ pages to read their posts, drop in on group chats, send messages, and of course share whatever handful of things I’ve collected in the past 24 to 48 hours since the last time I visited the platform.
This approach goes completely against the grain of how these platforms are designed. Sometimes I wish I had a way to see my friends’ musings and news in a more intentional set-up that doesn’t prioritize speed and distraction, while still allowing me to discover new possible friends and acquaintances in my corner of the book community. (Instagram’s requirement that all posts must have an image and its limited linking to external sites makes it a clunky platform for me, but it satisfies some of my other criteria; I’ve experimented with it a little over the past few months.)
Mostly, though, the lesson for me over the past few years of total and partial restriction of social media and my conscientious efforts to read and write with intention, is that I’ve had to trade the feeling of relevance for better, more focused work that could lead to greater relevance in the book community over the long haul. It appeals to my spiritual practice and my standards of excellence for myself as an artist and scholar, so it’s a trade I’m willing to make.