Attention Span: The Long and the Short of It

Every generation has a tendency to deride the next as frivolous and lazy. Over the past decade, for example, the phrase “short attention span” has become almost cliché in reference to young people. Those of us who grew up before the Internet and cell phones remember a time when people actually read books and wrote letters to one another; now, it seems, they read only blog entries and send 140-character text messages or Twitter posts. What, oh what, is this world coming to?

But wait a minute. Let’s consider a different example. In the writers group my friend and colleague Rob King founded a little over ten years ago, I am the token poet among fiction authors—most of them novelists. That makes me the seeming “short attention span” member of the group (especially given my preference for tiny things like lunes and senryusonnets at the longest). Novelists sprawl their writing across several hundred pages, slowly but inexorably nurturing within the reader an extended experience, like a farmer tending a crop. Poets, on the other hand, focus their language, hoping to hook and land a reader like a fish almost before that reader recognizes what has happened.

Does the relative shortness of a poem mean that a poet is lazier than a novelist? My novelist friends would certainly argue that’s not the case. They recognize an intensity of attention and a multiplicity of levels that reside in poetry, just as I recognize the dedication and grand scope in novels.

By the same token, I would caution anyone against dismissing young people as lazy in their reading and writing habits today. Have you ever tried conveying a complete message in 140 characters or less? It often requires effort and revision. Have you read the blog entries they’re posting to one another? Those entries often rival officially recognized nonfiction essays both in their length and depth. And have you noticed the novels young people are reading? Just because they blog and text message doesn’t mean they’re not reading print books, too (or, like my daughter, ebooks on her PDA), and then discussing them online—even writing their own fan fiction to expand upon those novels. Writing has taken an upswing of late, and whether or not we like its form, that form has a practicality about it that keeps young people engaged.

I can imagine, at the time writing was first invented, the oral poets bemoaning, “This will be the death of civilization. No one goes to the effort of memorizing any more. They just write words down. They don’t know the joy of letting verses imprint themselves upon you and then extemporizing a performance from them.” As much as I might sympathize with that sentiment, civilization continued, and people learned new possibilities with writing. Similarly, while the information age is definitely bringing about changes in the way people read and write, civilization is sure to survive. The question is, who will move forward with it, and who will be left behind?

—Les

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