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At the end of 7th grade, my gym teacher asked me how many books I was planning to read over summer vacation, and I told him that I estimated it would be around a hundred. He thought that I didn’t really know how to judge exactly how much time summer vacation was because back then it really did feel like the weeks between mid-June and Labor Day went on forever. School just a fragment of a suggestion somewhere in the distant future until the supply list arrived in the mail, I assured him again that I would probably read a hundred books in that time. He told me to write them down and show him in September.
The year was 2002, and it was one of my most memorable reading summers. I read The Song of the Lioness for the first time, several of my grandmother’s Danielle Steel books, and most of the Lois Duncan oeuvre. As I remember it, I wasn’t just an avid reader. I was a machine.
Some of parts this may be less true than others for those of you who grew up a little later, but here are a few reasons why it may seem like you read more as a kid or why you might feel as if you just say that you’re a reader by default now.
It Was a Ritualized Part of Your Day
I was a bit young for Book It!, or perhaps it was just that there weren’t really Pizza Huts in my area, so my books disappointingly never turned into personal pizzas — but there were other incentives. There was definitely a level of moral superiority around being “a reader” when compared to being, say, a kid who really liked video games. We celebrated Read Across America Day at my school. There was one class in middle school where I got extra credit points for each book I read and told my teacher about.
In a couple of my elementary school classes we had old-fashioned DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time after lunch every day. It has been proven that having at least 20 minutes to read without distractions can get you into a flow state. All I knew then was that it was sometimes very, very hard to drag myself back to the world of social studies and squeaky chairs.
There are whole books about how making something a habit or ritual makes you more likely to do it. This is also a well-known trick for writers — lighting a special candle, putting on specific music, and getting to work. Reading, for me, was a several-times-daily ritual.
You Actually Had More Time
This is the obvious reason, but it is not the only one.
During those three months in the summer, reading was just what I did. My parents didn’t send me to camp because I was good at entertaining myself (and I said that I didn’t want to go because it would cut down on my time with my books). Occasionally I’d see a friend or go to the movies with my grandmother or something, but I would usually sit outside with a stack of books and too little SPF all day long.
As children, many of us had long stretches of time to do nothing. Now it feels like I need to stack all of my productive time: knitting in front of the television, doing a dozen chores while my toddler is sleeping while listening to an audiobook about monotasking, fitting in exercise in general, the list goes on and on — and rarely does it have anything close to “spend five hours reading on the couch” on it.
The Books Themselves Were Different
I read some classics back in the summer of 2022, but I also read a lot of shorter, easy reads. Middle grade and YA books have gotten longer since 2002. Back then, I was very into Buffy the Vampire Slayer novelizations and series novels like Sweep, which were less than 200 pages each. I’m sure I also reread a lot of books, because I did that back then. Now I reread a very small percentage of the books I buy.
As my day outside came to a close, my mother would come home from working at a local mall (it was New Jersey, there wasn’t just one mall), and she might have stopped by Barnes & Noble to bring back more books. I would put in my order regularly.
Even when it wasn’t summertime, it wasn’t unheard of for me to start a book on the bus on the way to school, read it at break times and on the bus home, finish it that evening, and bring it back to the school library the next day.
When was the last time you read a book in a single day? In a single work week? I recently borrowed Invisible Child from the library on a Monday and returned it by Friday and it made me feel like that super reader again.
There may even be a format difference — back in 2002, I was reading print books exclusively. Some people claim to recall printed text better than ebooks. I love my Kindle, but there may be a point here. I do spend some time each night flipping back and forth through my Kindle trying to figure out where I was before I fell asleep with my thumb on the screen.
I’m Sorry, But Your Attention Span Was Different
We all know, even if we do not like to think about it, some of what our devices are doing to our brains. There is no getting around it. There was no phone to check in my backyard. I had basically unlimited access to the internet but it was 2002 and it was dial-up. There was no infinite scroll. My friends weren’t constantly online so it wasn’t like I was required to keep up my end of a conversation.
Reading was my default activity — it was what I did when I had free time. What is my default activity now? I don’t really want to answer that question, but it starts with “doom” and ends with “scrolling” and it leaves me feeling guilty all of the time.
You probably did have more time to read as a kid, but there are things you can do to maximize the time you do have today. Those things may differ from person to person: some people might prefer to have a reading app on their phone so that they can easily navigate away from Twitter, some people may find that the temptation to navigate back to another app is too strong. One thing that we can all do is to figure out how we are using our time and where we might be able to sneak in those few extra pages. When I want to read more, I avoid trying to read in my bed, because that’s usually a recipe for reading four pages and then falling asleep. If I bring a print book onto the bus, I make a point of taking it out and putting my phone away, because why else am I carrying it around?
Now, about that challenge my middle school gym teacher issued me? I read 104 books that summer.
Never tell me that I can’t do something.