I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, which I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.
We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.
Still reading “Still writing”
What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, which I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year. Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).
I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.
[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?
(Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).
I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.
But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.
So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.