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Rediscover the joy of slow reading

Is there such a thing as having too many books? Marie Kondo certainly thinks so. The queen of decluttering caused horror among bookophiles recently after suggesting in her Netflix series that "no one needs more than 30 books".

She later backtracked slightly claiming no one should get rid of books if they "spark joy" – but only after her comments had sparked a small Twitterstorm and blog posts like this one from thriller writer Christopher Fowler.

Shelves of books

He is the proud owner of around "a couple of thousand" books ... but admits he finds it difficult to concentrate long enough to finish any of them. He has 200 ebooks and 60 print books on his current reading list.

It's a common problem.

There was a time a few years ago – when everyone was getting e-readers for Christmas and sales of digital books were soaring – that some people were predicting bookshelves might soon be relegated to history along with gas lamps, coal scuttles and mangles.

In 2018, however, sales of physical books were up 2% year on year according to the Nielson Bookscan survey.

So if we're still making space in our homes for physical books but – like Christopher Fowler –not finding time to actually read one from cover to cover, you could argue Marie Kondo has a point.

Maybe the answer lies not in giving your books away, but rediscovering the joy of slow reading.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, claims the internet is not only distracting us from deep reading – it's actually rewiring our brains.

He argues the commercial model of digital content and search providers is designed to keep us clicking and following links: skim reading and surfing rather than lingering and reflecting.

As a result we have more information at our fingertips than at other point in history – but less time to think and evaluate it. And it's reducing our ability to concentrate offline as well as online.

Carr says: "With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use."

In a chapter called The juggler's brain , Carr explains: "The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our 'cognitive load'.

"When the load exceeds our mind's ability to store and process the information ... we're unable to retain the information or to draw connections with information already stored in our long-term memory. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow."

Our ability to maintain our attention depends on our working memory too – Carr quotes Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg: "We have to remember what it is we need to concentrate on."

So a high cognitive load makes it easy to be distracted.

"When our brain is overtaxed, we find 'distractions more distracting' ... Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data."

To get round this bottleneck – to reduce the cognitive load on our brains – we need to reduce the number of distractions.

And that could explain why people are returning to print books over the convenience of accessing books online.

With a physical book you can take yourself away from your electronic devices with their notifications, links, ads, messages, breaking news and all the other constant distractions.

When we let ourselves become absorbed in a book – getting into that flow state where we maintain our attention from page to page – we get much more enjoyment and value from it. We feel calmer as a result.

And the more we pay attention to one thing the more we strengthen our ability concentrate.

At the end of his blog Christopher Fowler pledges to try slow reading again as an antidote to his attention deficit.

So by telling us to give away our books Marie Kondo might just have made us notice them again.

And that's got to be a good thing.


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