The ancient art of reading books

Scott Feschuk: ‘The other day I read a book. Well, I started to … ‘

My train of thought goes off the rails

Mike Kemp; Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

You won’t believe what I did the other day. In our hurried age of bite-sized Internet content and nibble-sized social media musings, my attention span and I sat down to read an actual book—one of those things with pages and words and everything. Here’s how it went:

7:08 p.m. A quiet house, a couple of free hours: I pick up a thick hardcover, keen to experience the satisfaction of cracking its spine. (Before doing this, I always check to make sure I’m not reading an ebook. I’m not going to make that mistake a third time.) True, since 2009 I haven’t skimmed anything longer in a single sitting than a compelling box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but tonight I’m confident: I AM TOTALLY GOING TO READ YOU, BOOK.

7:11 My goal is to make a solid dent in Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman—a book that everyone was talking about a few months ago, which is when I bought it. Every day since then it’s stared up at me from the coffee table with the same accusatory glare I get after asking to taste test a sixth flavour at Baskin Robbins.

7:13 Excited, I read the first paragraph.

7:14 Still pretty excited but also a little worried because already there’s math, I read the second paragraph. And you know what? I can actually hear myself getting smarter. No, wait, that’s the sound of an email in my inbox. Better check that out.

7:18 I close my laptop and try to remember what the first paragraph said.

7:19 Excited(ish), I reread the first paragraph of the book.

7:24 I keep losing my train of thought. To be honest, it’s overstating it to call it a train. Thanks to the fleeting thrill of text messages and Twitter, these days my “train of thought” is, at best, a “railroad handcar of thought operated by two hobos.” Dagnabbit, there are some highfalutin theses ahead—pump harder, Tin Can Rufus and Big Earl!

7:31 I come across a word I don’t know—pupillometry. So I look it up on my iPhone and immediately get back to reading the book right after I make my next move in 13 different games of Words with Friends. That’s right, unsuspecting opponent: ZA is too an acceptable word.

7:44 My mind wanders from a passage about cognitive illusions. I flip to the back cover blurbs. It seems this Daniel Kahneman author guy is regarded as “the most important psychologist alive today.” I spend some time wondering how the blurb-giver discerned this, and how far down the list he ranked them. You, sir—you’re the 126th most important psychologist alive. TRY PSYCHOLOGIZING HARDER.

7:47 Another blurb. Richard H. Thaler, professor of economics, says the book I’m holding in my hand—the hand not using its thumb to check baseball scores on an app . . . and I really should see if Kijiji has . . . FOCUS, FESCHUK—anyway, he says the book is wise, deep and “readable.” Speak for yourself, Richard H. Thaler.

And really: what’s with the H.? Are there really so many professors of economics named Richard Thaler that you must further identify yourself with an initial—or is this merely a vainglorious affectation aimed at exaggerating your intellectual heft? “Ooooo, look at me: I’m Richard H. Thaler and this is my paisley ascot!”

7:49 I am sincerely sorry to have taken out my frustrations on you, Richard H. Thaler’s middle initial.

7:56 Chapter two would be going great if not for the fact the author just referred to something he’d explained in chapter one and my brain was all, like, “Whachoo tawkin’ ’bout, Willis?” (When under stress, my brain communicates exclusively using 1980s catchphrases. In high school, I nervously tried asking girls to the prom and wound up with a dozen jars of Grey Poupon.)

8:12 I suddenly recall the scene in Broadcast News where Albert Brooks’s character demonstrates his smarts with a song about how he can sing and read simultaneously. I attempt to do the same and wind up spraining my face. Turns out I can’t sing and read. Or even just read anymore. But there is one thing I know I can still do.

10:23 I finish watching Broadcast News.

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