April 25, 2013

I was just thinking yesterday, as I hung my head in disappointment over what’s looking like it’s going to be the fourth book in a row I won’t end up finishing, that the last one I read all the way through was George Saunders’ Tenth of December. Why can’t Saunders write all of the books, I thought. My attention span, it seems, has finally been destroyed by Twitter and the internet in general. I used to be such a proud, robust reader. A two-fisted, muscular, reader, rolling up the sleeves and getting down to the dirty work of Important Literature. Now I can’t go more than a chapter without an alarm going off telling me that I need to check whether or not someone I don’t know and will never meet moderately tolerated a one-liner I tossed off into the void. Did Kafka say something about that? Or was it Beckett? It feels like one of them did, but it’s been so long since I’ve read anything of value that I don’t even remember.

No surprise to read Saunders saying as much about the internet’s effect on our attention spans in a piece in the Guardian this week, because he’s right about everything. (Saunders, incidentally, was recently named one of Time‘s 100 most influential people in the world. The natural contrarian in me feels like it’s time to begin the Saunders backlash, but I really just don’t have the heart for it. He’s that good.)

“Twitter is a deliberate abstention,” he writes. “Somehow I hate the idea of there always being, in the back of my mind, this little voice saying: ‘Oh, I should tweet about this.’ Which knowing me, I know there would be. I’m sure some people can do it in a fun and healthy way, but I don’t think I could.”

He explains more:

I’m not easily distracted, as a rule. Especially where writing is concerned. But I have noticed, over the last few years, the very real (what feels like) neurological effect of the computer and the iPhone and texting and so on – it feels like I’ve re-programmed myself to become discontent with whatever I’m doing faster. So I’m trying to work against this by checking emails less often, etc etc. It’s a little scary, actually, to observe oneself getting more and more skittish, attention-wise. I really don’t know if people are “deep reading” less these days in favour of a quick fix on the internet – I think this is a thing one hears a lot, but when I travel to colleges here in the US there are always people reading Joyce and DFW and debating about literary difficulty and praising William Gaddis and so on.

I do know that I started noticing a change in my own reading habits – I’d get online and look up and 40 minutes would have gone by, and my reading time for the night would have been pissed away, and all I would have learned was that, you know, a certain celebrity had lived in her car awhile, or that a cat had dialled 911. So I had to start watching that more carefully. But it’s interesting because (1) this tendency does seem to alter brain function and (2) through some demonic cause-and-effect, our technology is exactly situated to exploit the crappier angles of our nature: gossip, self-promotion, snarky curiosity. It’s almost as if totalitarianism thought better of the jackboots and decided to go another way: smoother, more flattering – and impossible to resist.

It’s a drug, as powerful as any other, this internet thing. More powerful, it seems, than literature, which I spent most of my life intoxicated by. Mere inebriation is no match for getting high, especially when there’s always, always, always another fix a finger swipe away.

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