A brief foray into distraction’s history

This looks interesting:

A Crisis of Short Attention Spans, 250 Years Ago

By Natalie M. Phillips | January 01, 2017

When most people think of distraction, they think of flooded inboxes, cellphone beeps, Twitter feeds. An ever-present and unavoidable consequence of our fast-paced contemporary world, distraction is cast as a — if not the — mental state of modernity. Whatever came before — childhood, our parents’ generation, the Enlightenment — must have been, it seems, a more attentive age.

Yet even a brief foray into distraction’s history discourages nostalgia about an idyllic past of easy attention, particularly when we consider the history of reading. Rather than a quiet environment in which audiences were always found absorbed, or “lost in a book,” 18th-century poets and artists describe reading as occurring amid high cacophony: chamber pots sloshing and street hubbub. John Gay’s poem “Trivia” offers us this soundscape of London street life: “Now industry awakes her busy sons, / Full charg’d with news the breathless hawker runs: / Shops open, coaches roll, carts shake the ground, / And all the streets with passing cries resound.” If we complain today of media, and social-media, oversaturation, writers then worried about industrial, vocal, and literary tumult.

Many people both presumed and complained of novels’ unusual ability to capture attention, but fiction competed with a flood of essays, poems, sermons, and histories. The expansion of the book trade inspired a further flourishing of reviews, anthologies, and summaries that were meant to manage this literary surplus but only added to it.

But if inattention was a worry for writers, it also became a literary theme.

Read the rest at the Chronicle of Higher Education, here.

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