Distracted from Distraction by Distraction
The phrase is Eliot’s, from the Four Quartets. I’ve always thought there was a certain amount of jive in Eliot’s work, as much as I love it, and until recently might have offered this line as an example: does it really say anything more than “distracted”?
Yes, I think it does, at least if you make that second “distraction” refer not to the abstraction but to the presence of specific distractions. It refers to a condition of being so distracted that you are no longer conscious of being distracted, or don’t remember what it’s like not to be distracted, and I think I’ve been in that condition for some months now. I only realized it when I was asked to contribute to the so-called “book meme” in which bloggers list the books they own, the books they’re currently reading, and so forth. (I dislike the term, partly because I don’t think the term “meme” really conveys anything useful and partly because the “book meme” doesn’t actually seem to meet the rather vague definition of a meme.)
But whatever you want to call it, I did participate in this listing of books (and posted it on the Caelum et Terra blog), and it caused me to realize that it’s been many months since I actually read an entire book. Last Christmas my wife gave me a copy of Wendell Berry’s most recent novel, Hannah Coulter, and I got about halfway through it before the holidays ended, I went back to work, and a flood of more pressing concerns pushed the novel aside. Before that, I think it had been some months since I read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the last book I actually read all the way through.
It’s not that I don’t read. In fact I often feel that I read too much and am unable to let my mind cease absorbing data and enter a more reflective state. But what I read has been for some time now almost entirely journalism, both in print and on the Internet. I have several books in progress, but they go untouched for months because more ephemeral matter seems, partly because it is ephemeral, more pressing. Some of the journalism is very good, like the Chesterton Review. But even there I’m not reading primary sources; I’m not reading much of Chesterton himself, and there is much that I would like to read before I die.
I’ve always had trouble concentrating, and almost every aspect of my life seems to encourage that fault. My job involves technically demanding tasks which demand extended concentration and yet requires that I be available for interruption at any moment. Comparing notes on this with a co-worker, I found that we had each arrived at a similar state: that even when there is no interruption or distraction present, the constant expectation of it makes concentration extremely difficult.
That same syndrome has now spread into my off-work time. I don’t pick up a book because I know I won’t have time to get deeply involved in it before I have to do something else. So I go off and read someone’s blog instead, absorbing one two-or-three paragraph bit after another, getting involved in discussions which will be forgotten in a few days. Or I read one of the too-numerous magazines to which I subscribe.
This has to change. I’m going to start making the book—at least one book—my highest reading priority, and work in the journalism and blogs only after spending time with the book. It will mean cutting down on my Internet time, and possibly letting a magazine subscription or two lapse. Well, so be it.