The Virtue of Undivided Attention
3 min read

The Virtue of Undivided Attention

In media 2.0, everything social, interactive, linked, comment-enabled, etc. is GOOD, and everything static, one-way, unlinked, and solitary is BAD. Take Jeff Jarvis’ critique of books:

The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches.

Now I agree with many of Jeff’s critiques, especially the market limitations of the paper-based book medium. But consider this rebuttal from Steve Baker in the comments of Jeff’s post:

I read books when I want to be immersed. I don’t want a conversation, I don’t want to be interrupted, I don’t want to click onto a detour. I just want to be in the thrall of someone’s story or line of thinking. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve not yet had an experience sitting at the computer that’s come close to Magic Mountain or Catcher in the Rye or Maus.

It’s late, I’ve had a glass of wine. I hear the beep of the Tivo downstairs clicking through ads. I could watch TV (and I probably would if my kid would watch the NBA instead of Numbers). But I think I’ll go upstairs and read Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee. This is one of the moments in my daily life that I cherish. When I’m ready to forego it, I’ll let you know.

There are times when we don’t want to be social, we don’t want interaction — we just want to focus. Sometimes I feel like reading online is giving me attention deficit disorder.

It’s true that a book is like a speech that can’t be interrupted, updated, or altered. But the medium of speech giving still persists after thousands of years because sometimes its useful to just sit and listen to one person’s ideas, to give them your full and undivided attention.

Yes, there are a lot of crappy books, and a lot of crappy speeches, but there’s too much crap everywhere. A GOOD book (or a good speech) is worthy of my undivided attention.

And I’m not defending paper — digital readers will eventually make it over the hill, as another of Jeff’s commenters points out:

We still aren’t quite there technologically to replace books completely. We still need a display with the resolution of print â€â€� at least 300 dots per inch. Current screens just don’t have the resolution for comfortable reading the way ink on paper does – ever notice how the most comfortable way to read most PDFs is at 125 or 150 percent?

These displays should also be reflective, rather than backlit, so that they can be viewed in bright lighting conditions. It’s much easier to turn on a bedside light to read by than to turn down the sun when you’re at the beach.

The display must also be fairly forgiving. Exposure to the slings and arrows of normal daily usage can’t render it unreadable. Of course, low power and cheap go without saying.

But even when someone invents the iPod of text, there will still be ocassions when I just want to sit back and enjoy the story, without searching, or linking elsewhere, or talking back. I just want to listen.