“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
– Annie Dillard
As we approach a week away—filled with what I hope is plenty of “PDF”—playtime, downtime and family time—I have two book recommendations to share with our community: both have to do with ways to increase our attention, focus and, ultimately, enjoyment and engagement in life.
At any given moment there are so, so many things that vie for our attention—an endless amount, really. It’s truly a Herculean effort for me to not dive into the dozens of links in a single news article, listen to podcasts, watch a short video and then respond to emails and texts all before I pick up a book to “just” read. I am busy and distracted—as many of us are. And, yet, we must, and I use that word intentionally, pay attention to our lack of attention and regularly return to what’s essential. This fall I’ve had a few moments to read two compelling books: How to Raise a Reader, by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo, and 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week, by Tiffany Schlain.
As a child and young adult I read constantly and late into the night. I was one of those children who always had a book close by. Books served as my form of escape and were the perfect window into other worlds, cultures, and possibilities. Later, as an English teacher and young working mom with two small kids, my evening reading focused primarily on the text I was teaching the next day; I saved the invigorating pleasure-reading for summer, when I had longer stretches to dive into new or beloved works. Over the past decade, my school-year evenings are often filled with work events and emails, and inevitably reading fiction and for pleasure has often been relegated to plane trips and vacations. Even though I consider myself a reader at heart, I am often squeezing in this important, dare I say crucial, part of my identity and life in available nooks and crannies of time instead of giving it the time and place in my attentional life it deserved.
In the beautiful and compelling book, How to Raise a Reader, Russo and Paul not only give tips on how to raise readers of all ages, from babies to teens, but they also remind the adults the role we play in raising a reader. I have many vivid memories of reading the same picture book, over and over again to my children—and even though I was somewhat bored with the repetition, I could see tangible outcomes: they were able to “read” even though they couldn’t really read yet; they were able to predict what happened next, and they gleefully embraced clues in the pictures. When I have the opportunity to read to our kindergartners, I can see these same traits: focus on pictures, words and repetition. And, those who know the text are so excited to anticipate the outcome one more time.
Paul and Russo, both New York Times book editors, make a focus on more reading through salient and practical advice on how to encourage our children to read. Their advice is easy in many ways: books belong everywhere; take your children to the library; let them choose what they want to read for pleasure and; it starts with you. They remind us; “If you want your child to be excited about reading, you should be, too. These precious years when your child is living at home, observing your approach to life, are a great time to nurture your own reading habits.” You can find their recommendations in this article if you need a quick summary before you read the longer book (which also has beautiful illustrations and excellent specific book recommendations for each level).
Another way to look at our need to reground and refocus our attention is in the book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. The author, Tiffany Schlain, advocates for a single day off—a tech sabbath—as a way to provide true mental and emotional breathing space in our lives. She remembers back to a time, not that long ago (pre-smart phone), where “You could go to bed with a book instead of work emails. You would really go on vacation (without a laptop and cell phone so everyone couldn’t get to you). You would take a walk in the woods without your phone. Now we get input from everywhere, every waking moment.”
She suggests what seems like an unusual but fairly simple recipe to separate from our devices for one day a week: print out the day’s calendar, have a notepad handy for lists, use a landline (or even a flip phone) for critical communication and set communication expectations with friends and family. She reminds us that back just over a decade ago, “when the iPhone first came out, we couldn’t imagine how much it would encroach on our lives. We thought we could stop scrolling and clicking whenever we wanted to. Unfortunately, that’s not how human brains work. Within a year of its release, everyone around me seemed addicted to their phones.” And, while it may seem a bit yesteryear, it wasn’t that long ago that we all spent our weekends watching a soccer game from the sidelines with absolutely nothing else to do but watch, cheer, and chat.
So as we enter into a (homework-free!) week of less scheduled time, I hope you will find a window to read, to disconnect from technology, and connect with your friends and family so you can fully appreciate all of the bounty in our lives.
(Top image: Reading time with my daughter, Haley, circa 1997.)