Mary and I have another day of isolation before we can venture out into the real world. We both tested positive for Covid earlier this week while on a family vacation at a beautiful home on the shore of Lake Champlain just a handful of miles below the Canadian border. It was a fitting end to a fitful few days that included a siege of coughing, nose blowing and a head that seemed about ready to explode due to overflowing sinus canals and cavities. My suffering started on virtually the beginning of my tortuous respite. Within hours Mary, too, was suffering from similar symptoms. We assumed we were being assailed by raging allergies in a habitat replete with assorted flora of varying leafiness and blooms. I should have known better since my symptoms, including a dearth of energy and brain fog, started the day before leaving.
I won’t say much more about that since we are now home, staying away from other humans, and both feeling well. It turned out to be a good time to stay inside with a heat wave here reaching a dangerous level. The downside is that my attention span, or lack thereof, is being seriously challenged despite all the options from streaming video and social media and that old standby, reading. Yesterday I was able to finally get back to my daily routine of exercises in my improvised basement gym.
All of this reminded me of a commentary I wrote almost a decade ago after reading a note from a reader—make that attempted reader— which was prefaced by the following: “I usually never read (your) articles: too long for my short attention span…” I’ve heard that disclaimer before, and it has occurred to me that I write stuff longer than most things I read.
The following was my response, and I’ll understand if it doesn’t maintain your attentiveness through to the end.
Has anybody seen my attention span? I never had much of it, but what I had is slipping away. I could blame it on the aging process, but I look around and it seems to be happening to us all, no matter what our age.
There are those who used to have it, most of them 40 and older, and those who were never called upon to use it. The latter tend to be in their teens, twenties and thirties, and they didn’t need it because they’ve advanced this far in life without really being compelled—or should I say required—to read and study large volumes of text. College graduates in the 21st Century devoted about half the time to studying as those who graduated in the 1960’s and 1970’s, according to a study that I haven’t had the time or patience to read yet. We blame it on not having the time or being too busy, but we seem to have plenty of time for web browsing, channel surfing and being bombarded by bursts of information whose chief asset is that it is not boring.
I was an English major in college, with various courses in literature and creative writing. That’s where I got my attention span. I had to read entire novels—great works of literature— from one class session to another. It was not just a matter of reading them, but dissecting them and being able to discuss them intelligently in a group setting. I had never been much of a reader before that. Literature in high school proceeded at a leisurely pace. You could keep up with the assigned reading with little or no outside effort. Pay appropriate attention in class, and if there was a test coming, catch up in a study hall.
There was no meditative study and what Paul Zolbrod, a college English professor, calls “the deep reflection before sharing” that you need to write about something you have read.
As for my childhood, my parents did not have a lot of great literature on our bookshelves. I recall a lot of Reader’s Digest condensed books around and breezy murder mysteries. I read a few books during my adolescence, mostly the comic kind, but I never had to digest text in large doses. I went off to college, at the age of 17, having never cultivated an attention span. Let’s just say I devoted more time to the social graces as a college freshman than to more scholarly pursuits. I ended up with Uncle Sam, a year in Vietnam and learning some hard lessons about life before getting a second chance at higher education.
Returning to Scholarly Pursuits, Patience and Reflection
That’s where I learned about Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and many other great classic and contemporary authors, and discovered I had an attention span. I wasn’t just reading to meet course criteria. I enjoyed reading and the feeling that my intellect was being empowered by the wisdom and introspection of true scholars and accomplished writers.
It was reading that fueled the writer in me, as well as giving me an appreciation for illuminating insight brought to life by wonderful wordsmiths. Great writers, and even not-so-great ones, are virtually unanimous in the belief that voracious reading is a prerequisite for honing their craft. I don’t believe my reading ever reached the voracious level, but I did become an avid reader for a while.
Unfortunately, I have lapsed into that same malaise that plagues most of us in the age of the internet and easy access to any information you require at a particular time. I am dealing with more information than ever, but at the same time I know that information is not knowledge. The bulk of information that comes my way on a given day has no value when it comes to enriching my mind. Most of the stuff that invades my brain—and yours too, I’m sure—more closely resembles fertilizer than true sustenance. Knowledge requires time and effort to digest information and apply it.
“While print has declined as a medium of choice, I believe its mastery should matter… not only as a primary educational tool, but as an empowering one,” wrote Zolbrod, who I mentioned earlier, in the September 2011 issue of Vocabula Review.
I agree, but I am as guilty of not following that advice as anyone. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and I seldom read an article all the way through if it runs beyond 1,000 words. This essay runs counter to the rules of effective blogging in our wireless culture. It is too long, which challenges the attention spans of readers. It does not employ gimmicks to keep you going, such as bullet points, multiple graphics, enticing subheads and links to video streams and photos.
It is unlikely most of you made it this far. If you did, congratulations! You may have an attention span after all.