Monday, February 15, 2010

Sorry pursuits: On attention, multitasking, reading and writing

"I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place."
--Annie Dillard

I rarely read the fiction of Dillard or many of the literary/general fiction writers. But I know they're there, and appreciate that they prop up a significant part of the reading universe. (Otherwise, it would be turtles all the way down, right?) I like to discover what they have to impart about writing through their unique lenses. So I was curious about Dillard's 1989 book, The Writing Life. It was written before the Web, before cell phones and smart devices were ubiquitous, before the short burst multicasts of Facebook or Twitter or Google Buzz or...

The quote at the top of this post leapt off the page and wouldn't go away, so I tucked it away for eventual use in my campus e-mail's rotating sigline. It came to mind yesterday as I discussed worldly matters with my friend over at Sea Mist. We found we were in substantial agreement on many things, including the apparent foreshortening of the human attention span, and the change in what used to be called "common courtesy" in face-to-face encounters of all kinds. Attention span and courtesy have both seemed to suffer with the siren's call of distracting hip devices (hip in any sense of the word you like).

For now, I'd like to consider that aspect of attention that includes the ability to understand or make an extended argument-- for example, to be able to absorb ideas that take more than a screen's worth of real estate to express.

Is this a problem for you? If so, why? If not, why not?

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