Can You Still Read A Book? (Is This Headline Taxing Your Attention Span?)


How Bad Is This Going To Get? We Don’t Know

The co-founder of the highly popular authors’ blog site Writer Unboxed, Therese Walsh, is also an accomplished novelist. Her latest book, The Moon Sisters, is from Penguin Random House’s Crown Publishing division. She runs a sophisticated monthly rotation of professional-class writers’ comment at Writer Unboxed, while maintaining her own career and family.

This made her essay of February 3 all the more compelling. In fact, Walsh doesn’t frequently write a full article of her own for the site. But this clearly was a moment of urgency. Walsh had something she wanted to say in detail to the site’s thousands of daily readers in Monotasking: The Forgotten Skill You (and I) Need to Re-Claim, ASAP. She wrote:

This isn’t an easy post to write, because I’ll need to admit to something that’s a little embarrassing. Lately, at times, it’s been difficult for me to read. Yep, read. Not because I’ve forgotten how or because I lack the desire to do so, but because my mind leaps to Else as soon as I begin reading anything lengthier than a Twitter or Facebook post, which, of course, includes novels.

Not good.

Just focus, I tell myself. And I do for a few graphs, and then I’m gone again, chasing a stray thought set off by something I’ve just read or imagined with some un-still part of my mind.

Is it ADD? I suspect not, as I can focus on other things and this seems a relatively new problem for me.

So what’s going on?

In 2010, Nicholas Carr told us what he thinks is going on.

His book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains is now a kind of cultural placeholder, a high-water mark in watching the rise of a tide that has never stopped coming in since. Carr wrote:

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

And several of us regular contributors at Writer Unboxed have taken up Walsh’s point of concern. Along with the adamantly enagaged commenters of the Writer Unboxed community, we’re taking up the issue, each in our own way, if and as we feel like tackling it.

‘Adaptability Plus Acceleration’

On Friday, for example, I wrote If the ‘Elastic Mind’ Snaps: A Lenten Lullaby, in which i referenced the Museum of Modern Art’s Paola Antonelli and her superb 2008 exhibition, Design And The Elastic Mind. The question then — as now — was just how elastic is human intellectual and emotional power?

We are being asked to adopt and adapt to so many newly digitized aspects of life that the sensation of overload is as common as hearing the T-Mobile jingle in a crowded room and seeing 15 people check their phones.

In her introduction, Antonelli wrote:

Over the past twenty-five years, people have weathered dramatic changes in their experience of time, space, matter, and identity. Individuals cope daily with a multitude of changes in scale and pace—working across several time zones, traveling with relative ease between satellite maps and nanoscale images, and being inundated with information. Adaptability is an ancestral distinction of intelligence, but today’s instant variations in rhythm call for something stronger: elasticity, the product of adaptability plus acceleration.

My answer to the dilemma of “the shallows” and to Walsh’s distress about her capacity for long-form reading is — maybe foolishly, I’ll grant you — to try to rush forward, not backward, with the tide. Speaking only for myself, I don’t find that evading the focus-shredder of digitally powered interruptions is useful. My better course (and I speak only for myself) is to try to embrace and hug close the shakedown of so many distractions. I want to integrate their energy into my life and work. I want to eat digital for lunch. Yum.

But this sounds a lot easier than it is. And I don’t want to minimize the crisis: I agree with Walsh and Carr that we’re undergoing an impact of unprecedented magnitude on our capacities to think, to focus, to open the mind to the kind of uncluttered creative construct that previous eras accessed for peaceful, contemplative expressive work.

Almost inevitably, the writings of Marshall McLuhan is invoked in these debates. Man, I’d love to have know McLuhan, wouldn’t you?

One of my favorite lines from his canon is this from The Medium is the Massage:

All media work us over completely.

That is to say that the technological forces rising and gliding around us don’t deal us glancing blows in the street and then sheer off, nor do they give us a few bad moments every now and then, and romp away. No, they’re here to stay, and their impact is point-blank. As McLuhan went on to write:

[The media] are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.

It’s too easy to think that all we’re talking about here is too many tones, beeps, hums, and dings! in our day-to-day routine. Too many emails, yes sir, and too many tweets, pins, Instagram sunsets and Snapchat snarls, you bet. But that’s not it.

Much more important is what’s happening to our minds.

It’s that “working us over completely” factor that McLuhan was talking about, an apparent alteration of how our minds perceive and process what’s around us, and maybe how we start to balk at the idea of immersing ourselves in the imaginative majesty of a major novel or a long film or a lengthy writing task or even an intimate conversation with a beautiful friend….excuse me, where’s my cellphone?

In their new book, Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, co-authors Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler write:

The problem is that our brains — and thus our perceptual capabilities — were never designed to process at either this scale or this speed.

It appears that we may be watching a wrenching development arise in how the mind collects and parses information from its environment — an environment now morphing, Diamandis and Kotler tell us, in exponential ways.

It may be all very nice for me to write in my column at Writer Unboxed about being on the “forward team” that moves toward the digital diaspora of concentration, charging out (follow me!) purposefully away from a more orderly, contemplative creative practice in order to try to find the limits of “the elastic mind.” Allons-y!

But this on my part is perhaps a more emotional than intellectual reaction.

I don’t like the idea of swooning before the diodes, of taking a big nap to try to cope, of searching for peace and tranquility in order to duck the flickering flights of data overhead and underfoot. I’d rather try to stare this thing down, and I recommend that no one try this with me. Better one unhinged correspondent than the whole gang of us.

My own press forward may be somewhat aligned with Diamandis and Kotler’s concept of exponential growth and expansion, in which “disruption is a constant.” I feel my own need to become good with that disruption. I’m not there yet. But I’m working on it, on trying not to sit back and relax but to lean forward and be tense. And to keep the Campari within reach.

But in a third commentary on the topic, the author Barbara O’Neal has contributed an expressly writerly look at the challenge, The Shiny Everything And The Long Game.

And what she is warning us about here, I wholeheartedly endorse.

‘Writing Is A Long Game’

ONeal writes:

Here is my worry: writing is a long game. It’s the only possible way to have a strong, healthy, long career. I’m not talking about writers who are just in it for a fast buck or people who have one story that needs to be told, but writers who want a career, a long, satisfying, frustrating, maddening, up and down, heartbreaking and thrilling life as a writer.

Our world is all about the short game. Writing is the opposite.

O’Neal is right that many people today seem to want to reach their goals without spending the time and focus they require. This is visible in many fields, not just in publishing. In network television news, interns arrive for a first day of work asking how soon they’ll be allowed to anchor the news. (Most of them: never.)

Much as Andrew Keen is telling us The Internet Is Not The Answer today, he told us in The Cult of the Amateur that the idea of nothing-to-it and anybody-can-do-that and experts-are-just-gatekeepers would overtake us. And, in many cases, it has.

A sense of entitlement gasses all comers online: you see it in the pathetic attempts to imitate commercial craftsmanship that show up today on some book covers. An author friend this week sent me a link to this collection of appalling examples. It would be funny if it weren’t so “sad and useless.”

Empowerment, entitlement, expectations — all rise on the kind of digitally goosed glimpses of success we see glimmering on one screen or another. And O’Neal writes:

The truth is that nothing you do, nothing I do, will guarantee success for any of the books we write. Some will succeed, sometimes so far beyond expectations that it’s startling and all you can do is laugh. Others—perfectly great books, sometimes even better books—will languish…That’s where the anxiety lies for many of us. If there are three books that do well, one that flies, and the next one doesn’t sell as well for whatever reason (cover, timing, the phase of the moon, major disaster in the world), the next contract might be harder to get. That anxiety leads us to multitasking, frantic busyness, endless social media-ing.

Walsh started our ongoing conversation at Writer Unboxed, asking:

Anyone else look back on their day and often feel they have nothing to show for it? Anyone else think this might explain the monumental sense of accomplishment that follows when checking one thing off their to-do list?

Buckle up, because that’s just the first bump in DeludedtoDistractionville.

‘Disrupt Yourself’

There is no question in my mind that, as Walsh is discovering when she looks at text, my faculty for long-form immersive reading — for concentration of all kinds — is being impacted by the fragmentation and frantic switching signals of digital communications and their pace.

My own experience of this translates into demanding ever more engrossing material to hold my attention. I’m not worried that I can’t get through a whole book or chapter, but I want whatever I read to be worth the time I’m going to give it. I’m questioning that use of time much more than I did. Because…digital is waiting.

And while my own interest is in trying to understand how to absorb, turn around, and deploy more digital energy and syncopation, the need is clear, what O’Neal is saying is right. We have a problem. O’Neal writes:

I’m not sure how we keep ourselves from wanting instant gratification, honestly. I can identify the problem, but not the solutions. How do we stay focused on that long game? How do we protect the work we’re meant to do from the onslaught of connectedness and the need to have instant feedback?

McLuhan told us there’d be days like this:

We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.

And as Diamandis and Kotler say it, doing nothing hardly looks like the best response:

Either disrupt yourself or be disrupted by someone else.