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Literature in the age of distraction

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • April 24, 2013

Several weeks ago, I had to write a 2,000- word essay for my nonfiction workshop class. Although my notebooks are filled with scribbles of poetry and ideas for longer works, I can rarely write with a pen and paper for longer than 20 minutes before losing my patience. I am a fast typist, and can record my thoughts much more efficiently in a Word document than with a pen on a piece of paper. This time, however, I chose to make it a point to compose at least part of my essay longhand; so on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I sat down beneath a tree on the Boston Common and did just that, leaving my MacBook Pro on my dorm room desk. 

I watched my notebook fill with prose, sentences expanding across the blank pages into rich, meaty paragraphs. In a word, the writing process was organic; something about the imperfection of my handwriting, the tiny inconsistencies between the formations of my cursive letters and the scribbled-out corrections imparted a new sense of tangibility to my work. Although I transcribed, completed, and edited the essay on my laptop, writing longhand added a noticeable freshness into my prose. And for the first time in a while, I was able to concentrate —really concentrate — on a piece of writing.

Writing longhand was not an arbitrary decision. For some time, I’ve been thinking critically about how much our age’s proliferation of technology has encumbered writers and readers. For all of their benefits, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google, text messaging, smartphones, and other recent advancements in communication are hell-bent on degrading the modern literary experience. It has become nearly impossible for me to read or write without getting distracted. A two-minute break from writing to fact-check something on the internet turns into a half-hour session of surfing the web; a difficult section of a short story in-progress becomes an excuse to repeatedly check my Facebook. I can’t sit down and read a hundred pages of a novel straight through without checking my texts or suddenly remembering that I have to email so-and-so and leave the book lying facedown to open up my inbox, which invariably leads to a chain of online distractions as I open new tabs, follow hyperlinks, and check out what that one girl I graduated from high school with made herself for dinner.

This is not a new cultural phenomenon. In 2008, author Nicholas Carr argued in The Atlantic that the internet is conditioning us to operate in a way that runs contrary to the kind of thinking that creating and understanding literature necessitates. In an article entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Carr chronicles the struggle he and others in his profession have to stay focused while reading, and ultimately concludes that our immersion in the fast-paced, media-inundated world of the internet has changed our reading habits, inclining our brains to skim the surface of knowledge rather than absorb information on a deeper level. “When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image,” Carr writes. “It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all other media it has absorbed…The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.” 

Indeed, concentration has become almost a luxury in our time. We have learned to respond automatically to the new stimuli that now occupy our mental space—the bloop of a new Facebook message, the back pocket vibration of a cellphone. We live in an age of multitasking and, as Johann Hari, a writer for The Independent, argues, an age of distraction. “To read, you need to slow down,” Hari wrote in a 2011 editorial. “You need mental silence except for the words. That’s getting harder to find.”

For me, reading is the most fulfilling pastime imaginable. I read slowly and methodically, becoming engrossed in narratives, marveling at writers’ ingenuity, and rereading particularly artful sentences over and over again to experience the sheer joy of language. Writing brings a similar pleasure, and constructing a world with words never ceases to satisfy me. This is why I find it frustrating that technology devours so much of my time, often without my realizing it. And when I consider the arguments of Carr, Hari, and others in relation to my own life, I am terrified.

But the forecast isn’t entirely bleak. We can’t blame our culture entirely for distraction; personal discipline plays a crucial role, as well. Although it is becoming increasingly difficult to divorce our lives from technology, it is vital that writers of our generation recognize its downfalls and seek to minimize its overpowering influence our lives to some degree. It can be as simple as picking up a pen and paper.