(Preston Sturges, image provenance unknown.)
Via Antoine Wilson’s blog, I belatedly discovered David Ulin’s recent L.A. Times essay on his newfound difficulties reading. It is, in reliable Ulin fashion, thoughtful, generous and astute. Since the piece (broadly summarized) is about how the internet has fractured our attention spans, it seems against the spirit of thing to excerpt it here, but I will, if you promise to go read it in its entirety. The gravamen:
Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.
It’s easy, I think, to pooh-pooh such perspectives as the dying cry of the Luddites. (Ben Yagoda’s nuance-free review of John Freeman’s book The Tyranny of E-mail – which trawls similar waters – is a model of the sort of sneering pooh I mean.) But – as one who has contributed more than his share to this “over-networked culture” - I was particularly struck by this passage:
For many years, I have read, like E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," primarily at night -- a few hours every evening once my wife and kids have gone to bed. These days, however, after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don't. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I'm reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.
I have been grappling with precisely this problem myself, have wanted to write about it here for some weeks now. I have become conscious of how severely my reading has degraded, how deformed my capacity for sustained focus has become. I keep nearly a dozen books on my desk, in various states of examination, and all too often pick one up in the wee hours only to find that, three pages in, I have no real memory of the words that have just passed before my eyes.
I plead a certain amount of New Daddy Symdrome, but I share the anxiety Ulin describes, and I find it’s instilled all sorts of bad habits. The endless skimming, getting the gist through RSS and Google Alerts, has become a substitute for real knowledge and I find I am desperate to arrest the slide, to recover what was once a formidable capacity for focus.
At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Pico Iyer talked about combating the relentless internet-bite flow using what Hollywood types call counter-programming; immersing himself in things like Proust, things that demanded that he show up. That sounds like a marvelous response, if one has the discipline and fortitude.
As for me, I feel understandably divided – I am, in many ways, a habitué of the internet, a creation of it, and have offered up regular and frequent distractions for my readers. And I thrive on the interactions that emerge from it all, so unlike some internet attention seekers, I make no public resignations here – this blog will soldier on.
But I do note a number of the prescriptions contained in Freeman’s book that seem like great starting points: among them, drastically reducing the amount of time spent checking email (he proposes twice a day), opting for other forms of communication and, above all, maintaining “media-free” time in one’s day. Because Ulin is right when he asks “How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?”
So if it takes a bit longer than usual to get an email reply from me, or they are briefer than you are accustomed to when they do arrive, and if the posts here seem to come with less manic urgency, I hope you’ll understand. Me, I’m off to crack open some nice fat reading, maybe Proust at last, although George Szrites’ New & Collected Poems beckons. And if I start to get antsy, there’s always Lydia Davis – gotta walk before we can run, right? I am mindful of my days training as a cyclist – bad habits can be reprogrammed, and atrophied muscles can be coaxed back to life.
If you’ve struggled one way or another with the internet and reading – or you think I’m just the latest Luddite convert, an internet turncoat – feel free to weigh in below.
UPDATE: This just in from the Department of Great Minds Think Alike: Over at About Last Night, our pal CAAF frets about the very same thing.