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In Praise of Distraction

A 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. distraction 3Florence 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.

On these grounds, other kinds of representation have sometimes been represented as being better companions than the book to the practice of working life. For Friedrich Kittler, it’s technical media — sound recording, film — that capture events as they happen in time. For Brecht, theatre, noisy and present, extends rather than removes us from the street.  And for Benjamin, film and photography give, as he puts it the ever-current Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “work itself a voice.” These critical projects have asked what literature might sound like if it became the medium of the work rather than the writer in financial and practical repose.

All of those messages that Schwartz counts amongst the most vivid forms of distraction — the texts, the mails, the links to records of the people speaking, talking — make work audible in this way. “We are working,” says the steady stream of messages that falls day and night onto my open laptop. “We are working, say my friends and colleagues, and we are talking.” Talking and working: working and talking. Listen, I am writing with a baby at my breast; I am reading between shifts, and this is what I thought. I am speaking to the journalist on the street. I have a class to teach, but I went last night to the theatre and this is what I wrote over breakfast this morning. I am writing this from the demonstration where I am working to make things better — but look: I am also editing the document you write. I am talking to you, who are tired, but are also working, of my work. You have no time, but this message comes with the news that you have just enough time to read this.

distraction 1Do all these exchanges add up to literature? If we believe in literature’s relation to the present, they do. In this light, the words, the posts, the updates, the snippets of opinion that arrive as distraction from work — and that will be read in the future as evidence of what we read and wrote now — are not beside the point; they are the correct form for literature to take. Addressed by the writer who is working distractedly, to the reader whose work is porous to distraction, they are our voice.

For those who say, this kind of writing is unimportant, I’d argue that the most celebrated novels of our decade attempt to catch up with that sound of being at work. Our Ben Lerners and Karl Ove Knausgårds and Elena Ferrantes meet favour partly because they report so candidly on writing as a scene of work, a struggle against and in favour of distraction. They stage the difficulty of finding time to read and write (because: internet, babies, movies, cooking, moving) while suggesting that fiction now must succeed by beating this logic of distraction at its own game. Look, here we are working and talking, they write, hacking into a form that once staged itself as an alternative to work.

Zadie Smith’s NW breaks down into lines of status updates; Teju Cole writes while walking like a camera up and down the Manhattan streets; Tom MaCarthy’s Satin Island takes the form of a worker’s report. Reading these novels might still be easier on a sofa, but the form they imitate is that of representation that speaks for people who have no time. They are fat, paper-worthy books but as literature they register the feel of texts sent in the break.

One might, of course, still want to say: we work too much. Perhaps that is what Schwartz, even as director of “The Energy Company,” means to say. Perhaps, too, he wants to suggest that a society of people working less would produce healthier narratives, and more generous readers.  But as long as we don’t work less, literature can’t help bring about that change. Books might remain lozenges to be savoured on holiday; but literature, as long as we keep working, is bound to participate actively in the dynamic that has made distraction the only chink in our time.

The good news is that that digitally born language has taken forms that make workers audible (for despite what Schwartz says: work without a trace, without distraction, is not better: for the silent majority it is and always has been much worse). And we might also celebrate the fact that reading and writing have proved strangely resilient: in an image saturated world, some of the best forms of distraction take the form of the clever, critical, optimistic sentences written by young and old alike. While their words distract us from making databases, writing reports, unloading washing machines, and supervising children’s music practice, let us choose them over concentration. If we are readers and workers now, then we can say as our last defence that we are the distracted workers; the ones who, even if we read fewer books, are still willing to have literature interrupt us.


Christina Lupton: Grateful when it works

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  1. I agree. I’m nowhere near letting some efficiency guru dictate my style of information ingestion. I like long reads, scientific articles, book excerpts, Medium, 3QD, etc. Novels are way overrated, and I’ve read quite a few before the Internets bloomed.


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