When Saul Bellow delivered the Romanes Lecture at Oxford in 1990, the Internet was a dubious prophecy of tech specialists and mobile phones resembled military walkie-talkies; they took ten hours to charge, functioned for thirty minutes, and weighed two pounds. His talk was called “The Distracted Public” and, despite a pre-digital absence of smartphones, Twitter feeds or even e-mail, he could still worry about what was happening to the average person’s—the average reader’s—attention span. TV was the culprit, “the principal source of the noise peculiar to our time—an illuminated noise that claims our attention not in order to concentrate it but to disperse it. [W]hat we really look to it for is distraction—distraction in the form of a phantom or an approximate reality.”
Although it was a far-from-original point (he quoted Orwell in his defence: “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of civilized men”), he believed it worth making for all those technology-jaded lecture-hall listeners sunk glumly in their Information Revolution (to dust off an antique phrase…the Cold War was still in progress!). He reminded them that they were being “overrun by a variety of forces—political, technological, journalistic, agitational. Vast enterprises described as the communications industry inform, misinform, or disinform the public about politics, wars, and revolutions, about religious or racial conflicts, and also about education, law, medicine, books, theatre, music, cookery. To make such lists gives a misleading impression of order. The truth is that we are in an unbearable state of confusion, or distraction.”
Unbearably distracted—before BlackBerries, iTunes and Facebook? So what the hell kind of state are we in now? Johann Hari’s review of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (2010) by David Ulin, which appeared in the London Independent in 2011, offers an updated version of Bellow’s agony of distraction, all that “inner confusion and centrelessness of our understanding…[that] state of dispersed attention”:
All his life, [Ulin] had taken reading as for granted as eating—but then, a few years ago, he “became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read.” He would sit down to do it at night, as he always had, and read a few paragraphs, then find his mind wandering, imploring him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. “What I’m struggling with,” he writes, “is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there’s something out there that merits my attention.”
A not unfamiliar scenario, surely; but what’s really going on in this all-too-representative anecdote? In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (2009), Winifred Gallagher ventures a deeper diagnosis of twenty-first-century distraction:
It’s not a coincidence that the term distracted once referred not just to a loss or dilution of attention but also to confusion, mental imbalance, and even madness. It’s all too easy to spend much of your life in such an unfocused, mixed-up condition, rushing toward the chimera of a better time and place to tune in and, well, be alive. It’s the fashion to blame the Internet and computers, cell phones and cable TV for this diffused, fragmented state of mind, but our seductive machines are not at fault. The real problem is that we don’t appreciate our own ability to use attention to select and create truly satisfying experience. Instead of exercising this potential, we too often take the lazy way out, settle for less, and squander our mental money and precious time on whatever captures our awareness willy-nilly, no matter how disappointing the consequences.
Really? Our gadgets aren’t to blame for our tendency to waste time? The accelerated, indiscriminate, superficial consciousnes of the average laptopper or iPaddist is the product not of time-wasting technologies but of his own worst impulses? His capacity for idleness, his antipathy toward seriousness, concertedness, commitment, effort, personal responsibility? Isn’t this a rather moral position to take? Doesn’t it sound preachy to say so? But Carl Jung was no churchman, and he once said, “Hurry is not of the devil; it is the devil.” And if we’re all mentally hurrying about, where does the deeper restlessness come from? Maybe restlessnes is all we are. But if so, why indulge in Luddite daydreams of happier times, when people were supposedly calmer and more focused? If Gallagher’s right, our ancestors were only less scatterbrained than us because they lacked the means to become as distracted as we are. In other words, seventeenth-century Puritans, spending hours in church every Sunday, and hours more in private prayer or frowning through the latest Cotton Mather bestseller (Magnalia Christi Americana; or, The Ecclesiastical History of New England in seven volumes, anyone?), did so only because they couldn’t spend whole weekends scrolling joylessly through eBay, MySpace, Instagram, YouPorn, CraigsList, reddit, Yahoo and LinkedIn. A depressing thesis. Do we want to be distracted; is it delicious relief from our own company? Bellow certainly thought so:
I have suggested that distraction is…inviting. It can be seductive. It is often flattering. Pascal, a great observer of such things, said that the happiness of highly place persons was due to their having a crowd to amuse them. “A king,” he wrote, “is surrounded by men who take wonderful care never to let him be alone and think about himself.” So in a sense we are all highly placed persons—kings even—or treated as such by those who control (but is control really the word for it?) the electronic instruments that disseminate information-entertainment-opinion in hypnotic words and images.
Great. So we’ve devised technologies that perfectly pander to our perennial wish for effortless pleasure, just as we’ve designed fatally delicious fast food that targets our tastebuds’ weakness for salt, fat and sugar. Now what?
Bellow, a writer of serious novels, thinks reading serious novels can help, and talks at length about a state of mind he calls “aesthetic bliss,” total absorption in a fictional narrative. Which is fine, but the problem is, as he himself just pointed out, more and more people find it impossible to succumb to that particular spell. Another novelist, Philip Roth, even predicted that the novel would nearly die out in a few decades (in an October 2009 article in the Guardian), a victim of “the screen.”
According to Winifred Gallagher, who’s concerned about concentration in general and not just readers’ attention spans, a basic adjustment of attitude is called for, from the passive to the active: you have to choose what to target with your attention, and the cost of concentration, the effort involved, will be repaid, with many subjective benefits collectively defined as “quality of life.” Much neuroscientific data is marshalled to make her point, which is that personal well-being is closely dependent on becoming attentive to present experience, or what Buddhists would call mindfulness. It’s an interesting book but I mention it mainly for her point that distraction must be actively resisted. It’s a choice, and maybe a moral one.
Because let’s say now that in the future technology is going to increasingly crowd, cajole and complicate our consciousness, and that thrilling new methods of pleasantly wasting time will pile up on top of each other in ways we can’t imagine at present. At some point, in that context, reading a book will become a very deliberate undertaking, a quite willful act, of implicit criticism, of dissent, of absconsion, of resistance, almost a political act. Screen-era citizens will stare and whisper, pity and despise the page-turner. Determined book readers may need encouragement, an example of how it can be done; mentors and models, if you will. And, nice guy that I am, I’ve gone and kindly supplied them with several, in the heroes of my new book, The Concentrationsts, set a hundred years ago, but addressed to readers a hundred years hence, if there are still any, as well as to you, who have read this far (if there are any of you). Give it a try. You might like it. It repays concentration.