In Praise of Distraction

Christina Lupton in Avidly:

Distraction-3A recent NY Times piece by Tony Schwartz, chief executive of “The Energy Project,” a company dedicated to helping employers get their employees working better, deplores our addiction to electronic distraction. Get off line, he recommends, for good lengths of time. At least once a year, go read a book. This is fine, if increasingly familiar, advice. But it comes with a troubling idea of what literature is today: a salve for the distracted mind; a groove along which thoughts disordered by the bad habits of centripetal reading might fall back into line. A training ground for those trying to work better. It’s true, of course: for a very long time, books have been instruments of concentration. They have also mostly, though not exclusively, been written by those undistracted by ringing bells, the cries of children, the growling stomach, the fatigue of manual or secretarial labour. Reading is very closely associated with the pleasure of a state of non-distraction. And, for this reason, it has also been associated with privilege. Florence Nightingale, for instance, argues of women reading books in 1852 that no door is ever closed in favour of their seclusion; no protection ever erected to favour their concretion.

To be sure, there are plenty of stories of people finding ways to read and write late at night, between shifts or bouts of poverty, childbirth and manual labour. And while things like almanacs and abridgements and newspapers have made concessions to the distracted, novels, in particular, have evolved in tandem with the ideal of this kind of sequestration. We find the novel’s most honored readers holed up in closets and libraries; in childhood, sickness or old age, even as its lifetime supporters claim concentration through sinecure. Being absorbed in a book is easily romanticised — we may all feel individually and collectively that we once did that more and want to do it again — but there is no doubt that when we long for books in this way we also long for the sound of leisure talking to leisure.

More here.