Issue 15 | My Attention Doesn’t Belong to Everyone (and Neither Does Yours)
Season 2 of 'Writers and Writings,' My Morning Jacket, Lauren Groff, and more.
Here are five things I’ve been doing lately:
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Thinking about — and wishing for more — limits and attention;
Plugging season two of Writers and Writings;
Listening to My Morning Jacket;
Giving you an update on this newsletter; and
Reading Lauren Groff and (almost) Anthony Doerr.
1. My attention doesn’t belong to everyone (and neither does yours).
A few weeks back, there was an update on the Light Phone, and I’ve told Hannah it’s the only thing on my Christmas list. Some of you know I’ve been daydreaming about a dumbphone for more than a bit. I learned about the Light Phone around the same time the mobile du jour among celebrity types became the Punkt phone, common among the uber-affluent because, well, offline is the new luxury.
You wouldn’t get the luxury part of offline from the clamor of governments and companies trying to make the internet more widely available, or from just about every techish innovation being built for mobile — as if everyone just decided that if it can’t be an app, why bother. But my suspicion is that when you think about a life apart from notifications and hand-held “entertainment,” you feel the same near-romantic relief that I do. Certainly, my conversations with people bear that out. This weekend, even, Hannah and I attended a wedding, and the officiant opened the ceremony asking us all to turn off our phones, which was the bride and groom’s way of saying, Thanks for being here; please stay here.
This won’t be news to some of you, but, well, I hate my phone, the overpriced, constantly shattering distraction rectangle that stalks my pockets. I blame it for pretty much everything I do and don’t do. I try to make it less terrible; I’ve already peeled off social media and YouTube, but I reflexively replaced them with incessant scanning of ESPN and market news. Some of my friends have removed browser and email apps from their phones altogether. Maybe that’s next for me. But, honestly, it sure seems like I’ll just keep finding new ways to distract myself. It’s not all the iPhone’s fault.
The Light Phone update popped up at an interesting time in my reading life. In addition to the news everyone is reading about the openly insidious parts of Facebook, I was just in the middle of reading about, more or less, time and energy. Way back in my last newsletter, I shared some highlights from my rereadings of Wendell Berry’s essay, “Think Little.” Right about that time, a friend recommended Oliver Burkman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, which I started soon after. I also had just started a books that’s a bit older, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by artist Jenny Odell. It’s not that these books are all that similar in their theses or points. They’re not. But, like the Light Phone, there’s a sense of societal crisis, that drives them.
That I started reading these about the same time is either fortuitous or, maybe, just the way reading works. I do love that about reading — which I talked about with novelist Lydia Millet on my podcast — the way a single writer in a single book can somehow intertwine with other things you’re reading, often across vast geographies and timeframes. Like an unplanned conversation.
Odell writes about the ways our attention, you could see that as the intersection of time and consciousness, has become commodified and vied for by a cacophony of forces. In her view, capitalism meets tech in a way that increasingly blinds us from seeing — seeing our places and the people who fill them. In her intro, she writes:
Among my students and in many of the people I know, I see so much energy, so much intensity, and so much anxiety. I see people caught up not just in notifications but in a mythology of productivity and progress, unable not only to rest but simply to see where they are.
Despite her do-nothing motif, Odell’s book sets a plan of action to reclaim attention. In his decidedly different form, Burkman constructs a sort of anti-productivity productivity book. He doesn’t think readers shouldn’t be productive, per se, he rather wants us to embrace that we can’t calendar our ways to super-human accomplishment. Embrace limits, is the point of Four Thousand Weeks, and do the stuff that seems valuable in the context of finitude.
These readings overlap in Burkman’s suggestion, similar to Odell’s, that attempts to do more actually develop patterns and proclivities that make doing what matters nearly impossible. In a particularly stinging passage, Burkman borrows novelist Tim Parks suspicion that the oft-repeated idea that people don’t have time to read really has little to do with time at all.
What they mean is that when they do find a morsel of time, and use it to try to read, they find they’re too impatient to give themselves over to the task. “It is not simply that one is interrupted,” writes Parks. “It is that one is actually inclined to interruption.”
Inclined to interruption. That matches what I feel, whether it’s a human condition or the rewiring work of an attention economy. But, you know, I suspect a dumbphone won’t really work for me, not full-time at least. I may still try, but even if I could move all my tasks to a desk propping up a laptop, I travel enough that scanning boarding passes and hailing Ubers burn a good portion of my battery life. And really I see little harm, as a sports guy, in scrolling the ESPN app here and there. A new and different, after all, isn’t the reason the ideas from writers mingle in my mind.
I do seem harm, though, in what happens when I nurture mindlessly this inclination to interruption and distraction, when I just give way to a persistent drain of attention. Not because I want to accomplish more tasks — though that’d be nice, too — but because I want to accomplish what only I can: Giving what attention I have where it’s needed and deserved. To Hannah and our daughters, to my church and my friends, to the work that’s been given for me to do.
Can that coexist with smartphones? Sure, probably. It likely has to, since the forces around us seem more likely to keep propping up the do-everything attention economy, even while some of us try to resist. For me, reading the ideas of writers like Burkman and Odell helps along the way. Remember, too, this whole line of thinking started with “Think Little,” in which Berry writes:
A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways.
2. 📻 Now, go on and subscribe to ‘Writers and Writings.’
Because we just launched season 2. Two weeks in, I’ve had a couple of pretty different conversations:
06. G.K. Chesterton Can Give You Your Life Back
Last week, theologian Alison Milbank and I talk with my friend Craig about the sudden, tragic loss of his father and how he found some healing in a strange little piece of fiction by G.K. Chesterton.
07. Welcome to the Unwieldy, Uncomfortable World of Southern Food (Writing)
Then I got to talk to John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers. I think I’ve written about it in this newsletter, but it’s a book I’ve enjoyed for a long time. Because I love food, eating it and cooking it, but mostly I love how to talk about food is to discuss nearly every part of our culture. Geography. History. Economics and politics, too. In that vein, my conversation with John is emblematic.
And, you know, subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Do me a solid, too, and share the show with someone who might like it.
3. Jim James walks and writes in my old haunt.
Some of you know, I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, for the better part of a decade. When you’re there, the band My Morning Jacket seems as much a part of the city’s fabric as Kentucky Derby seersucker. Truthfully, I mainly held a purgatorial position on them. Not great, not bad.
But ahead of the group’s new eponymous album, which came out a couple of weeks ago, the Louisvillians appeared in the pages of Garden and Gun. The first few paragraphs make the profile worth reading. It opens with a description of frontman Jim James’s walks through Louisville’s parks, around Bernheim Forest, and his own neighborhood. Reportedly, he once came up with almost all of the lyrics for an album — we’re not told which one — via a practice of daily, 90-minute strolls. The boys in the band live, uninspiringly, in L.A. now, but the house James keeps in Louisville sure sounds like it’s close to where Hannah and I lived.
Anyway, the news stories about James writing dialed up my interest in the new album, and I’ve been playing it through a few times per week since. Here’s, I think, the most fun track, “Never In The Real World”:
The first single, “Regularly Scheduled Programming,” is good, too, but a more interesting song is this one called “In Color.”
4. 📧 I think I’m going to change up this newsletter. 📧
First of all, I know it’s been a minute. I’m sorry for the delay. Our move to Atlanta has been really awesome. Also, it’s been *packed* with new and shifty schedules, ramped-up traveling, houses sold and bought, World Serieses, and definitely some stuff I can’t even remember. All to say: my rhythm with this project has, well, missed a beat.
Anyway, I think I’m want to change this up a bit. Nothing too significant, but I think I’d like to increase the frequency of the newsletter and reduce the number of items. Like, instead of five things and monthly, maybe one or two things and fortnightly. There’s really no science behind the idea. Just a sense that upping the frequency may keep this project front of mind, plus I saw where Paul Kingsnorth publishes a “fortnightly essay” and that sounds cool.
I don’t know. Let’s try it, shall we?
5. Here’s (some of) what I’ve been reading.
Matrix. Just about everything in Lauren Groff’s new novel has been surprising to me. There’s no doubt whose work you’re reading, of course, given its pacing — minute details then leaps in time — and its characters’ consciousness, and I think the subject feels like her, too. But the story itself, the world it inhabits, is not what I expected. It’s better.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. We talked about this already, and I know you’ve seen this book around — it seems to be making the rounds, rightly. You should read Four Thousand Weeks, though, and certainly should read it before you pick another productivity, self-help, or pop business book.
The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery. Not exactly in the way of Groff’s novel, but this memoir from critic Ross Douthat is a touch surprising. Like you, probably, I’ve read Douthat here and there for years. Times columns. Occasional film reviews. A book or two of cultural criticism. In each of those forms, Douthat is looking at something external. In The Deep Places, like you can guess from the subtitle, he’s writing through a six-year war against a chronic disease. While not entirely distinct from his usual form, the subject here is microscopically intimate compared to his newspaper work. Yet, like any memoir worth reading, other stories are there, too, including yours and mine.
And, spoiler alert, Ross and I discuss his new work on my next Writers and Writings episode.
Cloud Cuckoo Land. I guess it’s been a couple of weeks now since Anthony Doerr’s new book arrived. Given some of the books stacked in front of it, I’ve yet to open it. But, you know, expect me to be writing about this in the next month or so. And for those of you who, sadly, don’t memorize my newsletters, I’ll leave you with what I wrote about Doerr’s writing a while back:
“Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See made a profound impact on me, both as a reader and writer. As a reader, I found the relationship between Leblanc and Marie-Laure somehow coagulated my hopes and fears as a father. I read All the Light slowly, in part, because I would reread passages describing Leblanc’s care for his daughter before I could move on. And as a writer — forgive me if you’ve heard this — Doerr does at the sentence level exactly what I’m trying to do. All that to say, I’m looking forward to reading Cloud Cuckoo Land this fall.”
Thanks for reading A Newsletter by Aaron Cline Hanbury! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.