any of us are born with attributes that slightly, sometimes greatly, set us apart: unusual strength, musical or artistic ability, skill with numbers, mental quickness, good looks. My own two attributes have been excellent physical coordination and a short attention span. The latter has been much more decisive than the former in the development of my character, my outlook, and my general good fortune in life.
The physical coordination useful to me chiefly as a boy on athletic fields made a genuine contribution to my early, quite possibly too high, estimate of myself. I was a grammar-school shortstop, a quarterback, a point guard. I was too small to play high-school football and played basketball only at the level of the frosh-soph team. I also lettered on my high-school tennis team. But I continued to think myself a shortstop, quarterback, point guard—and, in the deepest recesses of my mind, perhaps I still do.
As for my short attention span, only recently have I come to appreciate the benefits it has bestowed on me. The notion of a short attention span has been getting a bad press in recent years. The text, the tweet, the cursory email beginning “Hi,” and much more in contemporary life have been subject to regular harangues on the part of older generations. But this is ahistorical. Long before the dawning of the Age Not of Aquarius but of the Digital, one felt that attention spans generally were already diminishing, even at the highest reaches of intellectual life.
In universities after the 1960s, lecture courses were often replaced by those dominated by classroom discussions. Quarterly magazines that once allowed articles of 8,000–10,000 words began to tell their writers to keep it to 3,000–5,000, with photographs and pull-out quotes added. Descending to the more middlebrow, popular door-stopper novels of 900 and more pages of the kind James Michener used to regularly produce—Hawaii, Texas, Alaska—today they would not get off the press. In an earlier time a blockbuster movie—Gone with The Wind, Gandhi, The Godfather Part II, Lawrence of Arabia—was allowed to run three or even four hours, whereas now any movie that runs over the standard two-hour limit courts commercial disaster.
To return from the gross national attention span to my own short attention span, allow me to delimit just how short it is, or isn’t. For one thing, it is not in any way debilitating. Nor does it show up in that old Jewish condition known as schpilkes, or needles in the pants. I appear calm and concentrated enough. A short attention span has in no way made my life especially disorderly: I pay my bills on time, can read lengthy books (slowly), and arrive well before the polls close. No, my short attention span chiefly reveals itself in an antipathy to boredom and a genuine worry about boring others, of which more later, if by then you are not yourself already bored by this essay.
My short attention span has made it impossible for me to concentrate full time on serious money-making. My father was a moderately successful businessman, and a place in his business, with respectable emoluments certain, awaited me. But I sensed, even in my adolescence, that, however ample the financial rewards, I could never have kept at it. To this day I cannot read financial reports—even about the fate of my own money—without my eyeballs turning to isinglass; instead, I search out the bottom line amid all the bumpf, and walk away ignorant about how the profits or losses I have enjoyed or suffered over the past month or fiscal quarter came about. I suppose I could, a pistol at my head, learn the stock market, but to do so I should have to forget about reading such works as Mommsen’s four-volume History of Rome, and the sacrifice doesn’t seem worth it. (A more capacious mind than mine could doubtless do both, but then one can’t have everything.) I am not in any way above money, or unaware of the pleasures in accruing it, the prestige of possessing it, its usefulness generally. I just can’t bring myself to think about it for long or in anything like the concentrated way that earning vast quantities of it apparently requires.
Along with business, a career in medicine or law was never remotely available to me. With wealthier and more foolhardy parents supplying a trust fund that would have put me nicely out of the money wars, I might have gone on to become a flaneur, the more elevated version of a playboy, or a connoisseur of some minor division of visual art while living in London or Paris. But even here my short attention span would have got in the way.
No, in the end, as in the beginning, there was nothing for it for me but to become a writer, for one of the surest routes to becoming a writer, or so after some consideration I have discovered, is to be fit to do nothing else. In my case, a writer meant, specifically, an essayist, that butterfly among literary workers, flying from subject to subject, as butterflies do from flower to flower. Montaigne, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Max Beerbohm, H.L. Mencken, the great essayists, were, I do believe, short-attention-span men, butterflies all.
Turning to fiction in my forties, I found the short story, that form favored both by short-attention-span writers and readers alike. On a few occasions I have been asked if I wouldn’t like to write a novel. My answer is that I would indeed, a family chronicle, spanning three or four generations, played out against a rich European history—the Diaspora shtetl days, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War—a novel on the model of I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi! Given my attention span, though, the likelihood of my doing so is roughly equivalent to that of my winning next year’s NBA slam-dunk competition.
The shortness of my attention span prevented me, as a writer, from ever concentrating heavily on a single subject, becoming an expert, an authority. Instead I flitted, as I continue to flit, from subject to subject as my interests of the moment direct, having over the years written books on Divorce, Ambition, Snobbery, Envy, Friendship, Gossip, most recently Charm—books that, once having been written, exhausted my interest in their subjects.
In a story of Stefan Zweig’s called “Buchmendel,” I came upon the following fascinating sentence: “Jacob Mendel was the first to reveal to me in my youth the mystery of absolute concentration which characterizes the artist and the scholar, the sage and the imbecile; the first to make me acquainted with the tragical happiness and unhappiness of complete absorption.” Have I ever known such absorption? Yes, but for no more than two or three hours. Just now I am absorbed in writing this essay, but I shall soon be called away from it to run an errand, lunch will follow, and then perhaps I’ll watch a bit of the Cubs–Brewers game later in this weekend afternoon.
Many years ago, in a biography of Hannah Arendt, I read that every afternoon, in her Upper West Side apartment, she set herself down on her couch and thought for an hour. About just what she thought wasn’t mentioned. One assumes it was about one or another of the great general philosophical problems, or a question of historical interpretation, or something to do with a book she was currently at work on. Whatever the case, there each afternoon she was, on her couch, on her back, for one hour, thinking.
I tried it. I intended to concentrate on finding a solution for the knotty problem in a composition on which I was at work, but the prospect of that night’s dinner with friends at a restaurant in Chinatown arose. Regrets over two different girls I should but failed to have courted in high school 30 years before cropped up. The dreary season of the Chicago Bears brought a fleeting shot of depression. Did it bode ill that an editor to whom I’d sent a story, usually so prompt in response, was taking more than two weeks to get back to me about it? The mind, the rabbis tell us, is a great wanderer. They didn’t know the half of it. With only eight minutes of my scheduled hour spent, I got up off the couch and forgot the entire enterprise, taking comfort in remembering that Sidney Hook once told me that Hannah Arendt, despite her panoply of German classical learning, was wrong about everything important. Too much time on the couch perhaps, thinking at too abstract a level, putting, one might say, the Descartes before the horse.
Over the years I have been able to find jobs that allowed my short attention span to work to my advantage. As a young man, I slipped into editing jobs on general magazines and on an encyclopedia—butterfly work if ever there was any—then later was hired to teach at a university in a job where, since I neither had any advanced degrees nor wished for tenure, it was understood that I needn’t show any pretensions to the concentrated mental work called scholarship. These various jobs allowed me to essay away, so to say, writing early in the day, or late into the night, on subjects that engaged my interest at that moment. I seem to have produced 11 such books of these intellectual wanderings. People with short attention spans do not necessarily lack energy. Only lengthy concentration.
he advantages of a short attention span extend well beyond my work, or so-called professional life. I find I am unable to brood, at least for long, on public events. I marvel, for example, at the man who is currently the president of our country—how did we come to this fallen state?—but I do not allow his current residency on Pennsylvania Avenue to disturb my sleep or enjoyment of meals, pleasure in friends, and general amusements.
Nor does my short attention span permit me to dwell lengthily on international sadness. Such sadness is of course never in short supply—in the forms of famine, floods, raging fires, political tyrannies—but this, somehow, does not stop me from each morning checking the Major League Baseball standings. I am not without my political passions, but they flicker, and I keep a perennially cold place in my heart only for those Jews who do not find Israel morally as good as they think themselves. I consult the headlines in the daily press, usually online, but find myself quickly dropping away from the copy that appears beneath them. Whether this is owing to a short attention span or cynicism about getting at the truth of public matters in the press is less than clear. Like Malcolm Muggeridge, “I’d rather read about John F. Kennedy’s amours than what his speech-writers wrote for him to say or how his public image comported itself.”
I have had my share of personal grief—divorce, death in the family, heart surgery, and the rest—yet I find my short attention span has not allowed me to sustain for long the depression that such events usually bring on. Here perhaps is to be found the greatest reward of having a short attention span: the avoidance of long bouts of gloom. I do not say that I smiled through these sad events, only that I could not stay depressed for anywhere near what I suspect is the regulation time. Might it be that I am ultimately a shallow person? Or might it instead be that, as I prefer to think, I have always found the world an amusing place, and refuse to be long deterred from this view, whether from political or personal sadness?
Anyone who has read this far will scarcely be surprised to learn that I have never been in psychotherapy. I have never considered it. I do not gainsay therapy and its powerful recent ally psychopharmacology; it has helped bring people out of the hellish throes of schizophrenia and other wretched psychoses. I have known people who claim to have had their lives changed much for the better owing to it, even someone who averred that it saved his life. I might consider psychotherapy myself if the sessions were reduced from 50 to, say, 10 minutes, and the fees cuts proportionately.
As the chief emotion of capitalism is greed, that of socialism envy, the chief emotion of those of us with short attention spans is, as I have suggested, boredom, or more precisely the fear of both lapsing into boredom or purveying it. Easily bored myself, I live in modest but real fear of boring others.
As a college teacher for more than 30 years, I never walked into a classroom without at least a touch of trepidation. My fear was that I would put my students through the excruciating tedium that most of my time in classrooms as a student entailed for me. I also early came to learn that anyone who thinks he is a good teacher, like anyone who thinks he is charming, probably isn’t. Giving a talk or lecture to larger audiences naturally intensified this same trepidation. This fear was not without a basis in history.
Many years ago I received a call from the chairman of the English department at Denison University in Ohio, informing me that a book of mine had been chosen as the main text for the English course required by the freshman class of 800 or so students. The attached string was that I had to appear in person to give a talk, for which I would be given an additional modest fee.
My talk was given in a church, and my audience was made up almost exclusively of freshman students. I had expected more faculty to attend. The title of my talk, a survey of literary groups in history, was “Is There a Literary Life Before Death,” which I thought vaguely amusing. My first paragraph, meant to hook the audience and bring it over to my side, was larded with what I thought a few delicious witticisms. As soon as I delivered this paragraph, I could tell by the deadening response, the nonplussed look on the kids’ faces, that it had sailed blithely over the heads. And I had 22 more pages of the talk to give.
I prattled on, nobody in the audience smiling or laughing in the proper places. I didn’t look back at the large crucifix behind me, for fear Jesus, in his infinite sympathy, might be weeping. I was living a short-attention-span-man’s nightmare, boring the pajamas off 800 young people, though causing them to long for their pajamas might be closer to it. I felt as if I were walking through the Loop in Chicago, at noon, on a cold but busy day, wearing nothing but loafers. As I turned down my 22nd page, I was accorded the faintest possible applause, and the students, grumbling, filed out.
Which of the following seven fairly serious flaws, none of them among the seven deadly sins, would you least like to be accused of: being vulgar, selfish, tasteless, prejudiced, ignorant, humorless, or dull? For me, dullness would be the roughest, and that was the agony of the Denison lecture. They found me dull.
In part, I dread being thought dull because I am a writer and thus implicitly pledged to be at least moderately interesting—though I can, on request, name a dozen or so contemporary writers of some fame who have all failed to live up to the pledge. But also because I think being boring is a social flaw that reveals a serious want of self-awareness. “Try to be a person on whom nothing is lost,” declared Henry James in his essay “The Art of Fiction,” and to be dull is, if one thinks about it, to be a person on whom just about everything is lost.
he question, one I have been skirting round till now, arises if having a short attention span comes to little more than being someone without much depth, a person who is too shallow to concentrate for long on anything of substance. The Talmudic tradition doesn’t allow for a short attention span, and neither does the scientific. Difficult to think of a first-line philosopher with a short attention span, or even imagine a good accountant with one. Let us, please, not speak of a surgeon with a short attention span.
Might it be that a short attention span is in fact part of the mental equipment required of the intellectual, that boulevardier of ideas? Isn’t any figure who needs the freedom to roam—out of evading boredom or of giving way to curiosity or because of the proclivities of temperament—essentially a short-attention-span man got up in fox’s clothing? The fox I have in mind is, specifically, the fox in Archilochus’s famous (made so by Isaiah Berlin, another short-attention-span man) formulation, who “knows many things, [while] the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For the true fox, as for the short-attention-span man generally, no one thing alone is worth knowing if it means giving up so many other things worth exploring, however superficially.
The narrator in Stefan Zweig’s story notes that only through observing this Mendel, a bibliophile of prodigious memory, did he “first become aware of the enigmatic fact that supreme achievement and outstanding capacity are only rendered possible by mental concentration, by a sublime monomania that verges on lunacy.” (Wallace Stevens, in the “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” refers to those “lunatics of one idea.”) That monomania and its accompanying lunacy are, for better and worse, unavailable to those of us with short attention spans. The great monomaniacs—Darwin, Marx, Freud—leave their mark and have their powerful influence, though in the case of Marx and Freud that influence has long been on the wane and the mark begun to seem a blurry if not a black one. The short-attention-span man, meanwhile, plugs along, seeking primarily to amuse himself and anyone else who cares to read or listen to him. What he does may be ultimately negligible, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not, after all, as if he has any choice.