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Reading & the “Attention War”

Focus is a difficult thing to muster these days. As David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times column [1], we are all “losing the attention war. … Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.” This affects many of our daily activities, especially things that require special mental concentration. It creates a minute-to-minute challenge for the reader, who will always feel the pull of the next Twitter story, the latest email, the newest Facebook post, etc. Whether reading news articles or books, we feel the distractions itch at our brain.

Yet despite our society’s general lack of focus, we aren’t necessarily abandoning long books—the Goldfinch, one of the most popular novels on the market right now, is 771 pages long. But this lack of focus does mean that modern books increasingly cater to the short-term attention span. Tim Park explains [2] at the New York Review of Books:

Never has the reader been more willing than today to commit to an alternative world over a long period of time. But with no disrespect to Knausgaard, the texture of these books seems radically different from the serious fiction of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. There is a battering ram quality to the contemporary novel, an insistence and repetition that perhaps permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which most ordinary readers leave themselves open. Intriguingly, an author like Philip Roth, who has spoken out [3] about people no longer having the “concentration, focus, solitude or silence” required “for serious reading,” has himself, at least in his longer novels, been accused of adopting a coercive, almost bludgeoning style.

The author suggests that, in this world of limited attention spans, the serious writer may have to parcel out his or her writing into shorter sections or volumes, in order for anything like the eloquent and verbose reading of prior eras to remain. An idea worth considering: could this trend toward short reads give rise to a deeper appreciation of poetry in the future? It’s thought-provoking and often mind-taxing, true—but it’s short. Or at least, some of it is. It would be interesting to see whether poetry makes a comeback in the future.

Another possibility worth considering: what if we brought back the short story, or syndicated novel? The New Yorker publishes short fictional works, but few other large journalistic publications do. Yet these fictional stories used to occupy a considerable portion of the news cycle. What if modern novelists, like Charles Dickens in days past, published their novels in publications like the New York Times or TIME magazine—one chapter at a time? I think the public would love it—and it could also help print publications build an audience that they seem to be steadily losing.

But it seems rather hubristic of us to demand that the writing medium dilute itself to fit our modern tastes and weaknesses. Despite the fact that short reads can be powerful, we should also encourage habits of focus, of long-term concentration. This is possible for modern readers to do—they just need to take the time to do it. The serious reader must set aside time for books, very purposefully—and he or she must choose books in place of things like television and Netflix. This takes discipline and sacrifice, at least at first. There’s a level of mental energy required by the printed word that pixels and screens “save” us from.

Additionally, the serious reader must create an atmosphere that fosters focus, rather than harming it: for instance, try a clean room and comfortable chair to sit in, a blanket, a cup of coffee or glass of wine, some soft instrumental music, and comfortable clothes. The aesthetics of an atmosphere can build or impede focus. You have to figure out what builds yours best. Like white noise? Coffee shops are a great option. Also, it never hurts to put your smart phone out of arm’s reach.

Finally, the serious reader can (and perhaps should) start small. When you’re trying to build focused reading habits, you probably shouldn’t start with War and Peace or Kierkegaard’s philosophical works. They’re admirable books, and worth diving into. But it wouldn’t hurt to choose something that makes focus a bit easier: a mystery novel, an intriguing nonfiction work, a longer children’s book that you’ve never read, or a recent bestseller everyone’s talking about. Start slow—then ease your way into the big leagues: American fiction has deep, thoughtful content, but often communicates that content in a way that we all understand and empathize with. It provides a great step up. Consider reading a classic American novel—something by John Steinbeck, Robert Penn Warren, Walker Percy, Zora Neale Hurston. Then jump across the pond, and read some British lit: Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkein, George Eliot, Evelyn Waugh.

Your next jump might take you into the more convoluted and long (but absolutely gorgeous) volumes of the 19th century. Consider reading Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, or Victor Hugo. They’re a challenge, but they’re brilliant. The hardest jump will probably be into some of the longer philosophical discourses of thinkers past: but here, again, it’s possible to start with what’s easy to understand, and to build from there. I think too often, readers want to engage the most challenging and brilliant books up-front. This is probably why we never finish so many. It’s a bit easier to squeeze a volume like Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences into a busy schedule, than it is to plunge straight into Nietzsche.

The short-term attention span of the American public may give writers an opportunity to adopt mediums of writing that have been neglected over the past several decades. But at the same time, readers should also respond with gusto and defiance, by dusting off their biggest books and putting on their reading glasses. Focus may be a constant battle—but the “attention war” isn’t over yet.

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#1 Comment By tz On June 14, 2014 @ 9:44 am

There is the flip side. My kindle will read to me – so I can take a long sunday drive accompanied by a novel. There’s downpour.com or audible for books in audio format.

And libraries with amazon now loan e-books, and I can loan some of mine. My shelves are overflowing now.

We’ve confused urgent and important. Most events after leaving work friday can wait until first thing monday.

#2 Comment By Bagby On June 14, 2014 @ 10:44 am

You are very insightful and encouraging. Even the bibliophiles in your audience are edified by your suggestions.

#3 Comment By Stuart On June 14, 2014 @ 11:22 am

But big books are so heavy!

Actually, I’ve been loving me some Knausgaard this past year. On my fourth ~500 page book of his.

#4 Comment By k margosein On June 14, 2014 @ 11:41 am

Short stories are alive and well, but they seem to thrive only in specialty fiction, such as mystery, science fiction, etc.

#5 Comment By David J. White On June 14, 2014 @ 11:45 am

What if modern novelists, like Charles Dickens in days past, published their novels in publications like the New York Times or TIME magazine—one chapter at a time? I think the public would love it—and it could also help print publications build an audience that they seem to be steadily losing.

Television (via streaming) seems to be doing the opposite: moving away from the one-episode-per-week model, to making a whole new season available all at once via streaming — e.g. the American version of House of Cards.

#6 Comment By Mikhail the History Grad Student On June 15, 2014 @ 10:30 am

Reading and books have always been influenced by the nature of the medium. Dickens was writing for serial publication in magazines, thus the “always a Cliffhanger” style he has.

I’ll also note that e-books are sparking something of an unbinding (if you’ll pardon the pun) of classic publishing models, which were partially driven by physical limitations (very large books require different publishing mechanisms, which are more expensive, for instance). So at least in the fiction I read, short stories and serialized novels are making a bit of a comeback.

#7 Comment By WillW On June 16, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

TL DR. Kidding. Interesting piece. I know I often reward myself for getting all my weekend chores done by diving into a book. Nothing better.

#8 Comment By cdugga On June 16, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

Thoughtful contemplation might isolate you from the mainstream. Those able to achieve the time for books and have the energy required to digest written information and entertainment will have to settle for the benefit of thoughtful contemplation alone…..Something profound or something profoundly obvious….a little bit of nasty social commentary…. A written sermon on the war on attention would be, unfortunately, preaching to the choir.
As a younger man I always read for entertainment. I seemed pretty unique among my peers, and different that way in the many places I lived. I wonder now why that was since I still participated in the same social pursuits with the same ups and downs of becoming an adult. Now that I tend to read more for information while seeming to derive the same pleasure of thoughtful contemplation, I wonder if those who read have an advantage over the mainstream and are able to appreciate more, or are at some disadvantage. Like, can I communicate better because I read and write allot, or does it matter if nobody is listening without an accompanying video? Sometimes I have to defend my views from something repeated to me from a talk radio show and understand that to make my case requires more time than the listener will ever take. Sometimes I see eyes glaze over when I try to explains something to somebody more interested in checking the latest on their play phone.
The war on attention to what we believe needs attending to, may just put the power of our society and our nation on display. In one of my favorite books I read about a traveler who asked for news, including news about some distant war the nation was engaged in. Most people he asked knew nothing more than they were at war, and that their country was probably winning. One innkeeper spoke of particular troop movements he had seen. The traveler determined that his nation must be quite strong for most to be unaware of how the war was going, and that the innkeeper must be a spy.