Attention span is overrated

Recently I finished the gigantic Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson — a monumental tale of the struggle for sustained progress in an age unaccustomed to it. And by that I mean my reading was such a struggle. 3000 pages — more if you count the 900+ “sequel” published in 1999– is a hell of a task, even for a bibliophile like me. With other reading priorities, book clubs not to get kicked out of, magazines piling up, movies to watch, blogs to cover, and TiVo to play catch-up with I bet it took me two-and-a-half years to read it all. Like Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle was a fantastic, mythopoeic intertwining of real events and people with fictional threads. Not quite historical fiction, not quite science fiction, just geek epic. (Quick test: if this intrigues you, you’ll like the book.) But long. Way long. And long enough that more than a few people I know just said screw it. I’m glad I didn’t. Back to this in a sec.

Right after I finished the last volume, The System of the World, I eagerly began Steven Johnson’s long-deferred Everything Bad Is Good For You. Johnson’s book took me less than a week to finish, mostly on the train. Having followed Johnson’s blog throughout the book’s writing I felt I knew its argument going in. Johnson targets the cherished piece of conventional wisdom which holds that popular culture seeks the lowest common denominator, that it dumbs-down content to hit the widest possible audience. He effectively argues the reverse, that today’s television shows, videogames, computer interfaces, and movies to some degree are all much more complex entities than they were 20 or 30 years ago and that this complexity — the storyline of an episode of 24 or gameplay in Sim City — makes us smarter or, at the very least much better at problem-solving, pattern-matching, and long-term recall. Actually Johnson retains the “largest possible audience” part of the equation, but he suggests that the complexity of contemporary pop culture is aimed at creating that large audience through repeat viewings over time rather than during a single moment of programming as in the past. For example, Johnson argues that the complexity of a single episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons rewards repeat viewing far more than one of Starsky and Hutch. This argument reminds me of author Michael Joyce’s admonition that these days “a sustained attention span may be less useful than successive attendings.”

Something I’ve not seen addressed in commentary on Johnson’s book is the short section that deals with what he calls the “peripheral effects” of pop culture’s current state that may be seen as “less desirable”. Johnson writes:

Thanks to e-mail and the Web, we’re reading text as much as ever and we’re writing more. But it is true that a specific, historically crucial kind of reading has grown less common in this society: sitting down with a three-hundred-page book and following its argument or narrative without a great deal of distraction. We deal with text now in short bursts, following links across the Web, or sifting through a dozen e-mail messages …. But there are certain types of experiences that cannot be readily conveyed in this more connective, abbreviated form.

He means novels, of course.

You have to commit to the book, spend long periods of time devoted to it. If you read only in short bites, the effect fades, like a moving image dissolving into a sequence of frozen pictures.

Which brings me back to The Baroque Cycle. I’ve already admitted that it took an effort bordering on masochistic to complete such a long work when I rarely have more than a few minutes of time that something else isn’t forcing itself into my cognitive foreground. But what’s interesting is that I experienced Stephenson’s magnum opus exactly as Johnson suggests a novel shouldn’t be: in short bites, short bursts, successive attendings — and I still loved it. Were the The Baroque Cycle a monothematic, page-turning best-seller I probably couldn’t make this claim. But the sheer density of arcs, allusions, ideas, and characters allowed me (or, perhaps drove me unwillingly) to return to it consistently.

This drive didn’t come from a longing to know what happens next — in a story of such complexity things happen somewhat slowly. I’m pretty sure what kept me going was the complexity itself, the likelihood that, even if I could not remember where I was in the storyline (which gotta admit was often), some allusion would trigger a memory from hundreds of pages ago, like picking up on a reference in a Seinfeld episode from one many seasons before. This is Johnson’s precise argument in Everything Bad, but he stops short of extending it to contemporary novels. As with movies, where Johnson notes that only a subset of overall output provides viewers with the structural complexity that most kinds of pop culture demonstrate, Johnson reels in his argument when it comes to today’s written fiction. And I’m not sure why. The Baroque Cycle is an extreme example, but I think, like film, complex narrative exists and, while it might not be the dominant form (thank you Oprah, et al) it certainly partakes of the trend that Johnson describes. More succintly: believe it or not, certain forms of contemporary literature, heirs of the dense novels of the past, actually fit quite nicely into the hectic, multimedia culture of today. Their complexity rewards successive attendings as well as sustained attention.

Sidenote. As I am writing this I see that Kottke posted about Stephenson and Johnson too, though not with quite the same slant.

See also: Urban Library | Wheels and Towers