Try not to read too much into this, but ...

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I'm wondering if I'm losing my ability as a distance reader.

I'm not talking about vision. That's been fading for years, hence the glasses in the mug shot. I'm talking about my ability to spend very long with a book.

I'm a slow and steady reader, or used to be. For the past 30 years, I've tallied every book I finish. That's way nerdy, I concede, but this way I know I've knocked off well over 500 books, with about six works of fiction for every one of non-fiction, since about midway through the Reagan administration.

This year, though, I've finished only seven in six months. I'm not even sure I should count the book of poetry, really more of an appetizer than an entree. (That was Billy Collins' "Art of Drowning,'' which is terrific.)

I fear I've lost my reading stamina. I can't go 15 minutes without being distracted, and I blame the modern age. With emails and tweets (a real breakthrough for readers who find emails too demanding) we've become a society of gobblers rather than savorers.

I realize I'm not the first to point this out, and that a newspaper column is an ironic platform for such a complaint. Part of the reason people turn to columns is that, unlike most stuff in the paper, you always know how long it's going to take to finish. You can be done before your cereal's soggy, and there's no jumping to another page.

(Online readers may never know the frustration of "the jump," but you print readers out there, you know what I'm talking about. Don't you hate that "see page B-9'' stuff?

Many give up in frustration, which I believe is the origin of the phrase "B-9 neglect.'')

Books take more dedication. Books are a commitment, not a hookup. It's best to cut yourself off from every electronic device before sitting down with one, and I've forgotten how to do that.

Twenty years ago, a friend told me how to make my reading a meal rather than a snack. I'd complained to him that I never found enough time for books, and this guy, in public relations for Pitt at the time, told me I hadn't found the right chair.

"Seriously,'' he said, "if you really like to read, you need to cut yourself off from everything else. You need a good chair, with good light, and you need to get in it and stay in it. You have to dedicate a place for reading."

I took that to heart, and it worked for a long time. Lately, though, my chair has been more for the Sunday paper, listening to the Pirates on the radio, or checking baseball stats on via my laptop. Sadly, I've fallen back into the habit of trying to read books in bed.

Woody Allen warned about that in one of his early stand-up routines. He said he was kidnapped as a schoolboy, and when the ransom note came to his house, his father "gets into bed at night with the ransom note, and he read half of it, and he got drowsy and fell asleep, and then he lent it out.''

Next to my bed, I have a stack of merit-badge books I've started but haven't finished, each containing a bookmark that shamefully signifies my punting everyone from Charles Dickens to Edward Gibbon. I recently started "Ulysses'' for maybe the fifth time, which should be easy for me because my mother, God rest her soul, always spoke the way James Joyce wrote: a pure stream of consciousness, straight from whatever she found out in the checkout line in Waldbaum's supermarket.

"She's having surgery on Tuesday,'' Mom would yell up the stairs. "Her sister's going to watch her cat and her daughter is flying in from Albuquerque.''

Trying to decipher what she was talking about should have been solid preparation for reading Joyce, but I've never gotten very deep into his singular tour of Dublin before crashing.

When I awaken, the morning paper is waiting and the Internet is yelling "Yahoo!" I can almost hear my library weeping.

Every once in a while I'll run across someone who says, "I could write a book.'' I always respond, "Oh, yeah? When was the last time you finished one?"

It's kind of mean. The would-be author always looks hurt, but only for a second. Soon enough, they start texting and forget all about it.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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