The Books Briefing: Read to Find Focus, Even During a Pandemic

Posted by on November 13, 2020 10:37 am
Categories: Everything Else

Hark, by the author Sam Lipsyte, is a satire of a world plagued by inattention. In it, hopelessly distracted characters who are desperate for focus turn to the ineffective self-help practice of “mental archery”—and fall further into chaos.

For many readers, this feeling may be painfully familiar. With anxiety about the news, a warped sense of time, and new social norms, the pandemic has made it hard to maintain focus for a while now. Reading (whether short poems or long epics) can offer a respite. Detail-rich works are particularly grounding, helping readers concentrate even after they put the book down. My colleague Oliver Munday found that his perception was sharpened by Marcel Proust’s beautifully descriptive novel cycle, In Search of Lost Time. Similarly, the critic Connor Goodwin experienced heightened sensory awareness when reading The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd’s memoir about climbing in the Scottish Highlands.

In Lecture, the English professor Mary Cappello celebrates such deep rumination, even when it comes at the expense of sustained attention to the information a lecturer is imparting. Cappello describes the concentrated thought that comes from a meandering mind, and in doing so, she elides the distinction between distraction and attention. The writer Marina Benjamin encourages similar “mind wandering” in her memoir Insomnia. While Benjamin certainly doesn’t offer a cure for sleeplessness, she opens up the possibilities of what “strange things … can be seen and felt in insomnia” when you allow your thoughts to roam.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of a man with arrows pointing at him

A lame send-up of a guru and his acolytes
“Reading Hark can feel like being trapped in the writers’ room of a sitcom two seasons past its prime, except that the staff members desperately trying to top one another and laughing at their own jokes are all the same guy.”

📚 Hark, by Sam Lipsyte

gif of Proust
(Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic)

How I came to love my epic quarantine reading project
“I felt as though an ocular dial had been tweaked and the details of my life—objects, surfaces, textures—began to intensify.”

📚 In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust

illustration of a person walking along the spine of a book

The exquisite pain of reading in quarantine
“In exquisite prose, [Nan] Shepherd writes of and from the senses—sound, smell, touch above all—with such heightened awareness that what she describes—‘a sting of life’ from a cold-water current, the ‘juicy gold globe’ of a cloudberry—feels pristine and immediate. Engrossed in reading passages such as these, I felt present and disembodied.”

📚 The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd

photo of a bubble

The surprising value of a wandering mind
“[Mary Cappello] believes that the lecturer’s role is to activate listeners’ minds—and if that sucks some into daydreams or rumination, that means the lecture is a success.”

📚 Lecture, by Mary Cappello
📚 How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell

Book cover of "Insomnia" by Marina Benjamin

A literary companion for insomniacs
“For sleepless readers familiar with the feeling of being trapped in anxious ruts, [Marina] Benjamin’s celebration of mind wandering as ‘fleet and light and connective’ may at times sound strained. But if her roaming induces fatigue now and then, her ‘border-crossing bravery’ and curiosity prove highly contagious.”

📚 Insomnia, by Marina Benjamin

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi.

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