… my attention wandered when I realized how sententious, hidebound, and just plain unconvincing his argument was. So I went on Facebook instead.
And one I’d heard before. Parks’s “Reading: The Struggle” in his regular New York Review of Books blog complains of “the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction” in tones very familiar from here, here, here, here, and here. (Wow, some of them are over five years old – amazing people had the attention spans to keep coming back to this tired argument for so long.) Parks then follows, as you so often do in this sub-genre of short threnody for the pre-internet era, with a nostalgic evocation of snailmail days – in Parks’s case, in Eighties rural Italy where the fastest form of communication was the Vespa.
“Now, on the contrary, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for,” Parks argues. “One is actually inclined to interruption. Hence more and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book, particularly something long and complex.”
Really? I’d say that we’re living in a golden age for attention spans if readers can yawn their way through Jonathan Franzen or Karl Ove Knausgård. (And btw, if you’re looking for a sexy hook to bait readers into your self-indulgent meanderings, why not plagiarize a title from a genocidal dictator?). After all, flattering a reader’s intellectual vanity, or validating their cultural conservatism, definitely helps keep their attention, no? And enough readers found their way to A Song of Ice and Fire through that great attention sink, the TV.
Parks quotes some passages from Great Works to prove his point. Let’s try a few other contrasting quotes. For instance, Charles Dickens, kicking off Bleak House:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.
Telegraphic. Crisp. Short. Four-word, three-word sentences.
Or Henry Green, described by The New Yorker as “author of perhaps the greatest English novel of dialogue, Loving, a book written almost entirely in the speech of Cockney servants”:
“Ask if any of the other servants have come across it will you? Such a nuisance.”
“And oh tell me, how is Eldon?”
“Much about the same I believe Madam.”
“Dear dear Yes thank you Arthur. That will be all. Listen though. I expect Doctor Connolly will be here directly.”
Pretty devastating for my poor post-Twitter attention span, I must say.
“The novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out,” Parks maintains. Bear in mind how uniform, for instance, Ulysses isn’t: one narrator, one voice, all the way through – NOT. Or the elephantine, crushing length and complexity of The Man Who Was Thursday. Or The Time Machine. Or Kidnapped. Or is that too many examples for your attention span?
I’m massively in favor of a respect for serious reading which insists that every moment devoted to it has to be fought for, planned for. But then, look what we’re up against. All these incessant complaints about technology competing for our attention, this endless din of pundits and scribblers moaning about the demise of serious literature, the damage that the internet is doing to our attention spans, the harm Amazon is doing to the book world, etc. etc. Why not just switch them off and go read a book instead?