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We're on information overload

Kids can't focus these days, and neither can I.

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As a school librarian, I wind up reading all sorts of damning reports on students' lack of reading skills. The latest dire news came from the National Endowment for the Arts' recent "To Read or Not to Read" study, which warned that "less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier." High school students are faring even worse: Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of "nonreaders" has doubled over a 20-year period, from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. This multitasking generation, we're led to believe, can't focus on any item for longer than nine minutes.

But despite the ominous reports, it's business as usual for students today, at least the ones I'm talking to. So what gives?

Educators or parents might start by framing the questions differently. Who isn't having trouble concentrating these days? Who doesn't find it nearly impossible to stick with a 450-page novel?

The other night, for example, I stumbled over a paragraph in Milton Friedman's seminal 1962 tome "Capitalism and Freedom." Years ago, I might have worked with Friedman's convolutions and tried to unspool the main idea. Today, I have neither the time nor the desire. Well, I probably do have time, but with so many other books by my bedside, queued like a fleet of 757s on a snowy runway, there's too much competition to endure such prose. I put Friedman down for good after Page 30.


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