"the seductions of news websites constantly updating"
June 18, 2014 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Reading: The Struggle
What I’m talking about is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it on numerous occasions over what could be days, weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels and indeed the larger world. Every reader will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed, but here is my own experience.

Reading Like A Kid - "There was an intensity to reading then, a kind of total involvement in story that is hard to reproduce as an adult. I know too much now about tired plots and clichés. I am always comparing one thing to another, recognizing devices, identifying styles. No matter how good or bad I find something, I’m always aware of my response, slightly detached, consciously enjoying or not enjoying."
Reading And The "Attention War"
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.
But is The Goldfinch any good? It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?
In April it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the judges of which praised it as “a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.”

It’s also gotten some of the severest pans in memory from the country’s most important critics and sparked a full-on debate in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself.
Vanity Fair's Donna Tartt Piece Reduces All Literary Criticism to Childish Squabbling

For the reader on the go: Rooster, which is "an ereading app that allows users to consume bite-sized pieces of highly curated fiction. "

One recommendation: work in pulses.
posted by the man of twists and turns (38 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
We all know this. Some have greater resistance, some less. Only yesterday a smart young Ph.D. student told me his supreme goal was to keep himself from checking his email more than once an hour, though he doubted he would achieve such iron discipline in the near future. At present it was more like every five to ten minutes. So when we read there are more breaks, ever more frequent stops and restarts, more input from elsewhere, fewer refuges where the mind can settle. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.
Speak for one's self. I'm sick and tired of being told that things like email and Twitter and the web are "interruptions" that I have to protect myself from if I want to focus. Sometimes I sit at a computer and check my email 10 times per hour in between blogs and Metafilter comments. Other times I sit and read the same book for two solid hours. Uninterrupted. On an iPad that has those "tempting" buttons like Email and Web and Bejeweled available at a slight touch.

I don't think I have superpowers. I think lots of people can do the same. I think the same people who can't focus on a novel today because they have to check email or Instagram would have had the same trouble 30 years ago because they had to turn on the TV or pull out a magazine or listen to the radio or answer the phone. I know because I was here 30 years ago and I was reading tons of books and I had friends who never finished books because they couldn't focus. Or didn't care.

Technology is awesome and all it does is give you more options than you had before. Your lifestyle comes from you, not from the technology. If you can't focus on a novel you have nobody to blame but yourself. And maybe the author.
posted by mmoncur at 10:13 PM on June 18, 2014 [19 favorites]

These articles keep happening. Meanwhile, the novel keeps happening.

I'm young enough to have had an email address, IM capacity and a cell phone since before I started reading serious adult fiction. My reading tastes, whatever they are, were created mostly in the supposedly dangerous world of distraction being discussed here. These articles are rarely written by people in that group. Rather, they're written by people who are feeling something change in the way they read and are looking for a reason.

Look at it this way: sure, a lot of people can't enjoy a pleasant two hours of reading without checking their email, but they're likely the same people who couldn't enjoy a pleasant two-hour dinner party without checking their email either. We see a lot of articles bemoaning that too -- rightly, I think. And yet social contact -- even deep and meaningful social contact! -- is in no danger of dying out. People adapt. Someone will always be buying what literature is selling, so they'll figure out a way.

Also, reading is like eating -- no one book provides all the necessary nutrients. It is not Donna Tartt's job to write the superfood/Soylent of novels. No, The Goldfinch didn't do everything one can ask a novel to do, and there's no reason not to criticize it for the things it didn't do, but not for letting down the cause of the contemporary novel.
posted by ostro at 10:29 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ach, I've read that Donna Tartt review and it's awful for all the usual sexist reasons -- "she may be popular but she's no Jonathan Franzen so best not let her get too uppity".
posted by MartinWisse at 10:49 PM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't blame the internet and my cell phone for my inability to read more than twenty pages of The Goldfinch at a time. I blame its lackadaisical, meandering style; I blame a totally unlikable main character who blows all the good will his circumstances generate for him; I blame the bland cast; I super especially blame the editor for letting an extra 200 pages slip into this otherwise good enough, but not phenomenal, book. I am almost done and can't wait to move on.

That said: ever since I got a job where I sit on a computer all day at work instead of being on my feet doing other stuff, I have found it immensely easier to read books at home because I am all caught up on the internet by the time I get home. So it's not that I disagree with the premise of the post, but The Goldfinch strikes me as an odd novel to suddenly be the object of so much attention.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:52 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

The main link has sort of a point that there certainly are far more opportunities for distraction around now than thirty years ago; but the upshot is that I'm also a lot less bored than I could be thirty years ago. It does take effort to carve out the time in the day to do a proper read and not fart about on the interwebs. But that is I think largely dependent on the kind of person you are and I know plenty of people who do manage that much better than me.

Apart from that, it's just another "eat your vegs" op-ed about the importance of reading difficult books, not coincidently rejecting out of hand the long books people actually read. Also, if you're championing difficult books, why go for the middlebrow Dickens rather than a George Eliot?
posted by MartinWisse at 10:55 PM on June 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

As always, no one writing these articles has thought critically about the concept of the "attention span" or the garbage-y psuedo-science surrounding it. The wikipedia page, after it gets done with two definitions that do not apply at all to how the term is used in pop culture, is nothing but a bunch of "studies" that show correlation with no causality, and references to pop culture bleating from the likes of Roger Ebert.

Even if the kind of "attention span" people like this talk about existed in any meaningful sense (it doesn't), activities that require intense concentration like video games would be making it better, not worse. Anyone who has even been bored can tell you boredom begets more boredom. Staring at the wall all day does not make your mind stronger; quite the opposite. Muscles get stronger when you exercise them. None of this stands up to even the most cursory cross-examination just by thinking logically about it, let alone having some sort of scientific support.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:40 PM on June 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

That TNR piece made me chuckle; using Norman Bloody Mailer as exhibit A in the case against animus driving criticism/accolades is ridiculously silly. If you're trying to say the literary world is not high school cliques and bullies, he and Tom Wolfe etc are the last people you want to mention.

I do agree that the vanity fair piece was largely empty and excessively gendered - practically every critic and novelist mentioned was male.

More broadly I think there is a real tension between literature as a marketing category, and literature as literature. Sometimes they overlap, but I would say the connection between literary success literary endurance can be pretty abstruse, as anyone who looks at the most feted and most ignored novels yesteryear can attest.

I don't know that Tartt's books will stand the test of time - but neither will many other perfectly cromulent books deserving of praise.

The business of judging what others read and writing prescriptions like a doctor, however, never seems to go out of fashion.
posted by smoke at 12:39 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

This attention-killing side effect of modern technologies is actually a personal obsession of mine, but more as it pertains to TV and films. I don't know anybody personally who would be capable of sitting down and watching a long, slow, old film like The Godfather or 2001: A Space Odyssey without texting endlessly, browsing online, or just plain falling asleep. Most of my friends are so obsessed with acquiring and consuming the latest thing as quickly and cheaply as possible. And i have to tell them -- no, i don't feel like squinting at your smartphone and watching a dark, muffled, pirated bootleg copy of Maleficent before you get bored and turn it off 45 minutes in to it. Just, no.

Don't even get me started on these rapid-fire clip shows like @Midnight and Tosh.0. They are brainrot. I reject them.
posted by ELF Radio at 2:37 AM on June 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't know anybody personally who would be capable of sitting down and watching a long, slow, old film like The Godfather or 2001: A Space Odyssey without texting endlessly, browsing online, or just plain falling asleep.

This flies in the face of the growing critical and popular interest in long-running tv series, many of which are really better viewed as 12, 13, 15 hour movies, rather than serials, though, don't you think?
posted by smoke at 3:12 AM on June 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Tim Parks piece is beautiful, and absolutely speaks to my experience. Of course, it's possible that it's just me (and him) getting older, rather than anything to do with the technology – but the sheer number of people of different ages who testify to this kind of experience would suggest otherwise. To amiably disagree with mmoncur, I'm sick and tired of being told that the unimaginably massive changes in the technological landscape over the last couple of decades have magically had zero effect on attention, and that all we need to do is pull our socks up.

One option: do your reading on the subway.
posted by oliverburkeman at 4:26 AM on June 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

We can read novels on Twitter, we can read novels on websites, we can read novels on cellphones, we can read novels on iPads. We must however confront our anxieties in person.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:52 AM on June 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Media change, formats change, long form has no inherent value versus short form. Was Chekhov inferior to Tolstoy? Does Duck Amuck say more about how the media is constructed than any J-L. Godard film?

Celebrate the diversity on offer and enjoy what you enjoy to the full!
posted by Wolof at 6:51 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, but a lot of us want to enjoy long-form, and find that it's increasingly hard to concentrate. This isn't a value judgment about the merits of long books over short movies. I don't think these kinds of pieces are really intended for people who simply love the current state of the media unreservedly and feel no conflicts about it.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:05 AM on June 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Note that all of my examples are creakingly old. That was quite possibly deliberate.
posted by Wolof at 7:11 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

…so an interesting question might be, why didn't people complain that reading Chekhov was making it harder for them to focus on Tolstoy? Or maybe they did, which wouldn't invalidate the complaint – but might suggest a different set of solutions to the problem.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:16 AM on June 19, 2014

This is just chatty bullshit, but perhaps because Chekhov published in newspapers, whereas Tolstoy pushed out weighty important tomes, and the domains didn't seem commensurate to the readers?
posted by Wolof at 7:37 AM on June 19, 2014

I would like to participate in this thread but I'm almost done with Inherent Vice so I'll check back later.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:38 AM on June 19, 2014

Related to "reading like a kid," here's Anne Helen Petersen at Buzzfeed on "Why You Should Read Like a Teen Again." It's less concern-troll-y "oh no the internet is in your brain" and more "boy, adult life sure doesn't make a ton of space for uninterrupted reading."
posted by torridly at 7:40 AM on June 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

So Rooster chooses books for you and notifies you when it's time to read 15min worth? Is the idea that it's supposed to feel more like FB notifications or something and so win more of your attention for books?
posted by batfish at 8:07 AM on June 19, 2014

Technology is awesome and all it does is give you more options than you had before. Your lifestyle comes from you, not from the technology. If you can't focus on a novel you have nobody to blame but yourself. And maybe the author.

HAL, I won't argue with you anymore! Open the doors!
posted by srboisvert at 8:13 AM on June 19, 2014

What makes a work literature, and who gets to decide?

Some ineffable magic, and later generations.

Shakespeare was derided by the intelligentsia of his day (and even by his buddy Ben Jonson) for not following the classical norms. "Comedy and tragedy? In the same play? Are you mad?"

Well, the public loved it, which in time allowed the old boy to retire and live the easeful life of the minor gentry. All's well that ends well, for Will.
posted by BWA at 8:36 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Any time I hear that someone wants to read a novel, but cannot because of technology-mediated attention span attrition, I want to say: It's okay not to read the novel. It's okay that you only halfway want to, and you can admit that your email and websites are more interesting to you than reading the novel. This isn't school, and no one is forcing your hand. But don't pretend that your desire to read the novel is that great, because if it was, you'd find the time and attention. People do, and they always have. We may not have always had IM, but we've had jobs, kids, housework, important conversations with the neighbors, leaky roofs, dogs barking: Life is nothing but things demanding attention, and you can pick one to pay attention to, or another.

Technology has made things shinier but not different. We've had Condensed Books for ages now. Fiction with all the hard stuff removed, to go down easy. And we've had easy books, too, ones written in that looser, less-dense style, to give you more time to enjoy, and less need to study over every sentence. This is not a recent development.

TL;DR: Admit that you don't like literature as much as you like the internet.
posted by mittens at 8:51 AM on June 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.
Wordsworth. Writing in 1800.
posted by yoink at 8:56 AM on June 19, 2014 [10 favorites]

Related: Tabless Thursday. ("Meerkats lay eggs? I didn't know that.")
posted by maudlin at 9:02 AM on June 19, 2014

There's another element, not just the raw availability of e-mail and distracting media -- there has been a shift in cultural expectations about how quickly we should be responding to people's requests for our attention or action. When someone e-mails you, it's becoming increasingly more (socially) difficult to ignore, because that person is likely to call you or text you if they don't get the response they want instantly. It's especially awful when you're a freelancer and don't have a single daily schedule. Clients & project managers ping you whenever and they always need an answer NOW NOW NOW. If you have a smartphone, this expectation is even more inescapable. "Just leave your phone off!" Haha that's a good one.

As a result I'm more loath to start an immersive activity or book because I fear being interrupted by these sorts of things. I default to internetting too much of the time out of a sense of necessity -- if I just surf the web, I'm already at the computer "just in case" I need to put out a fire, and I won't feel as disrupted as I would being torn away from a deeply-immersive activity or piece of literature.

All this internet crap got invented without ettiquette really developing alongside it. And because the most intrusive people are often the people putting food on your table, and because of the globally horizontalized freelance labor market (aka the race to the bottom) it's very risky to set firm boundaries and make yourself unavailable without also making yourself unemployable.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:07 AM on June 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I had time to finish Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros in obsessive short stints this week, and then re-read it so I could underline the passages I loved, because I found it wonderful. But I ended up abandoning The Tiger's Wife after a frustrating couple of weeks because I just didn't care about the grandfather, the protagonist, the tiger's wife, or the deathless man. My daughter says teenagers should read rapaciously because they have no filters and don't know what's crap and what isn't, because that's when you develop your understanding of good literature.

Meanwhile, I slog away at my own novel(s) that no one may ever read, because story telling is a human need. Spent a couple of hours writing today.
posted by Peach at 9:13 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something happens to me sometimes when I'm online that turns me into something of a zombie and I have to shake myself out of it. I am perfectly capable of sitting down and reading a long, dense book from beginning to end and only breaking for the bathroom and meals, so I'm not a person who just has to fidget and flit from thing to thing.

I find that sometimes I lose hours clicking around tumblr or facebook, just meandering, not really focusing on anything in particular. It's almost like a trance - the most unmeditative trance ever. I laugh at memes and like people's posts, I'm engaged with what I'm looking at enough to respond appropriately, but I'm not really fully there, if that makes sense. I don't have any problem putting it down and walking away when I notice it happening, but I don't always notice.
posted by joannemerriam at 9:15 AM on June 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

drjimmy11, THANK YOU. If I read another science-and-fact-free, pulled-from-my-ass, "common-sense opinion" piece about how these intertubes is ruinin', RUININ' I SAY, today's kids, and that's not even music they're listening to anyways... Well, I won't. Because this crap is only good for paying the rent of professional article-writers.

If the internet had done half of what people seem to claim it does to ruin brains and thinkitudiousness, you can bet your sweet bippy there'd be data to back it up. Hell, the mere act of making the internet available to a remote village oughta show a significant drop in student academic abilities.

Quite the opposite happens.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:27 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by OHenryPacey at 9:43 AM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't blame the internet and my cell phone for my inability to read more than twenty pages of The Goldfinch at a time. I blame its lackadaisical, meandering style; I blame a totally unlikable main character who blows all the good will his circumstances generate for him; I blame the bland cast; I super especially blame the editor for letting an extra 200 pages slip into this otherwise good enough, but not phenomenal, book. I am almost done and can't wait to move on.

You're finishing it even though you don't like it? Why?
posted by JanetLand at 10:00 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

yoink: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined . . .
Wordsworth. Writing in 1800.

posted by arkham_inmate_0801 at 11:05 AM on June 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Admit that you don't like literature as much as you like the internet.

Admit that you don't like food as much as you like pressing the lever that stimulates your pleasure centre, lab rats.
posted by rory at 1:26 PM on June 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Teens read? Why do that when you can dialup a friend and talk on the telephone for hours, or watch "Twilight Zone", or go downtown to play pinball, or listen to your 45s ....

On the plus side, I'm positive the words "Get off my lawn!" are heard much less frequently than before the evil began.
posted by Twang at 1:32 PM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe so, but they're certainly typed more.
posted by merelyglib at 1:58 PM on June 19, 2014

I'm not as sceptical about this as many people seem to be. I feel like the various circumstances of my life have always hugely affected my ability to think, remember and concentrate -- and why wouldn't they? When sensible people are telling you otherwise, it strikes me as silly to insist that focusing on a novel should be the same as playing video games, or watching Mad Men, or reading your email, or else you must not really want to do it and you're just pretending you wouldn't have had the same problems in 1995. You can't think of any ways it might be different? When I lived somewhere without the internet for five months (in 2010), the things that happened to my attention span were astonishing. By the third month, I was reading like I did when I was a child. I tried to hold on to those changes afterwards, but really... haven't. It was like my own little Flowers for Algernon.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:18 PM on June 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

It isn't so much that nothing can affect your attention and memory; obviously, many things can. Exhaustion, overwork, hunger, joy, grief, sure, all can have an impact. The question isn't whether the circumstances of your life change your reading, but whether the quality of this change is new once you plug it into the internet.

I don't see it. The quantity and velocity of media, yes. There are certainly a lot of listsicles out there, and when you're in the throes of checking out the 23 Words That Mean Something Different If You're A French Bulldog, it's probably easier to then move on to the next one rather than picking up that Coetzee novel gathering dust on the shelf.

But again, that's quantity, rather than quality. It isn't as though, back in 1995, you'd simply run out of distractions ("Okay, I have now read all the webpages!") and then move on to a book. There was still television; you could lose yourself in the bad movies on after midnight. There were still newspapers and magazines. There was radio. And anything you chose to concentrate on that wasn't a book, was still distracting you from reading a book.

To pretend that this is not a choice, is giving up a sense of agency about your interior life. Worse, it is denying yourself a chance to practice that all-important shifting of gears from one frame of thinking to another. This narrative is all about how the internet is eroding, not just our time to read, not just our ability to read, but our character, but it does so by denying that most important part of character, the ability to make a choice.
posted by mittens at 5:55 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

The choice to put down the Metafilter and start reading a book isn't what it's about for me at all. I find it pretty easy not to look at another listicle. I pick up a book every day. I like to read, want to read, have the time, make the choice. The problem, on a bad day, is that, having opened that book, I can't go a minute without feeling the urge to flee and look at something else; I can't go three pages without realising I've merely been decoding words, thinking about something else entirely, for the previous two. OK, I should probably mention that I have ADHD, which I don't treat medically (methylphenidate makes my body ache), and it's a constant struggle not to get distracted no matter what. But that just makes me more sympathetic to the idea that concentration can be a complicated, difficult thing for other people too.

For me, the internet is a place where it's OK to indulge my silliest impulses -- clicking from one tab to another the first instant of that sharp longing for flight -- all day long if I want to. And allowing myself that behaviour affects the way I am in other areas of life. I'm fairly committed to reading books (very, very slowly) anyway, but it's important to me to acknowledge that the internet, and the way I use it, does make a difference.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 1:47 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

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