TL;DR and the Destruction of Attention Spans Everywhere

tldr “TL;DR,” meaning “Too long; didn’t read,” is a common acronym found around the Internet these days, usually in response to a longer story or essay. Sometimes, authors will even write a short, one- or two-sentence summary of their point as a preface to their article and have “TL;DR” out beside it for those readers who don’t want to read further.

But this is more than an acronym. This is a PROBLEM.

Two Reasons This Is a HUGE Problem

As an English major and former English teacher, I find this “too long, didn’t read” trend distressing, for two big reasons:

  • All of us–including those of us who study literature and written publications–are becoming entirely too impatient when we read. Either that, or we feel easily daunted when we see long blocks of text. We have become more dependent on short written bursts of news and entertainment, and most of us do not take the time to read on a deeper level daily.
  • Because of the instant gratification of TV and the Internet, our kids are growing up with this same “TL;DR” mentality in schools. This doesn’t help them learn to deeply read literature–they find shortcuts online or read Cliffs’ Notes, rather than sitting down and really studying the actual work.

Even I’m finding it hard to concentrate on a long essay or a long work of literature these days, and I used to be one of those folks who consumed the written word like it was candy to my brain. One could attribute it to stress or illness, but I think there’s something else wrong–my ability to concentrate has dwindled with the lessening need for extended concentration. And I’m likely not the only one.

The (Sad) End Result?

I fear that the day is quickly coming where people will not know how to make themselves read for long periods of time, and will forget how to lose themselves in well-written literature for hours. I fear that we as a society will forget how to pay attention to something that isn’t flashing and/or brightly colored.

The main reason I fear this? Because it will, quite simply, put me and other writers out of a job. As a writer, I want generations of people to read my novels, to immerse themselves in the world I am painstakingly building with my words. But if in the future no one can pay attention for that long, will my words ever be read and enjoyed at all? I’m sure I’m not the only writer out there who worries about this.

The Solution: Building Up “Reading Stamina”

I believe that we all must work on our “reading stamina”–the ability to read for long periods of time without getting distracted or bored. The reason I call this ability “stamina” is that it can be trained and increased, just like physical endurance. We can endure longer reading sessions; we just have to want to do so, and schedule time to “work out” in the mental gym.

  1. Search up a subject you really enjoy, and read 2 articles about it. Compare and contrast how each author approaches the subject. For instance, I might read a couple of articles on astronomy, music, the geek life, etc., and see how each author’s opinions match up with each other, and where they differ.
  2. Closely read 1 short story, poem, or 1 chapter of a novel per day. Don’t just scan the work, but read it almost as if you were reading it aloud, going word-by-word. Really delve into what the author is saying; study their word choice as if through a microscope. How does the piece of writing make you feel? What is the author’s point?
  3. After you finish reading anything, mentally summarize what you read. Does what you just read change your opinions or worldview in any way?
  4. Share what you’re reading with others on social networks. Offer questions on the points you didn’t understand in what you read; offer opinions on the points you understood and reacted to. Start a discussion!

These are all exercises that will help you beef up your understanding of what you’re reading, which will make it easier to read for longer periods of time–you won’t feel so overwhelmed. Just like you have to start exercising with short bursts of activity and longer rests, so you must train your brain with short bursts of reading every day, rather than jumping into a huge novel right away.

I’m also suggesting that you make reading a more social activity; it’s long been seen as something that isolates us, much as computers isolate us today, but in fact becoming well-read can help us make new friends as well as enrich all our conversations.

Summary

(Ironic that I’m putting a summary on this article, isn’t it? LOL) If we want to continue being a literate society, we need to stretch our reading muscles. We need to be okay with reading longer works, or reading for longer periods of time, because being willing to read deeply can help us do everything from enjoying literature to avoiding financial pitfalls (reading the fine print). If we don’t use that skill, we lose it; if we lose the ability to read longer pieces of writing, how long before we lose the ability to read deeply at all?

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