Thursday, September 1, 2011

Short Story

I'll admit it: my attention span is not great. I don't blame the internet, even though it's basically designed to amp up my already spazzy brainwaves. A bespoke befrazzling, if you will. (Please don't.) I actually blame the Babysitter's Cub novels I read as a child, because the second and third chapters were always the same - introduce the characters, introduce the club - and I trained myself to skip right over them. It wasn't like, in chapter two, Ann M. Martin was going to drop some serious knowledge on her readers. "Oh, by the way? Kristy? Totally queer. Just so's you all know."

As a result of my lazy childhood reading habits, I am no longer able to make my brain pay attention to large stories. My sister, who is way more of an internet generation than I am, has nonetheless plowed through a bunch of epic stories (Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, that one about the ring, and so on), but I barely got through three Potter books before throwing my hands in the air and muttering darkly about thirteen year olds riding broomsticks. I read the entirety of the Dark Tower series, but that barely counts - you can skip whole paragraphs in a Stephen King novel and still get the gist. NB: if you live anywhere in Maine, you will eventually encounter a) a giant spider, b) a vampire, c) bullying that goes way past "it gets better" into "why don't these kids call the cops, because clearly those bullies are going to straight up kill them."

Anyway, even though I can read long stories, my eyes get tired, my brain gets bored, and I eventually just curl up into the fetal position for the course of a long weekend and doze through entire chapters. I read 60% of Infinite Jest this way. That book contains, as far as I know, a hilarious fake game called Eshcaton based on tennis and world domination, and roughly three billion footnotes. I still recommend it to friends. I love reading in bed, but mostly because I can read, fall asleep, wake up, and keep reading without missing a beat. Books that require concentration and attention to details - like Dune's plot, for instance - tend to glaze me over, because I really do best when things are a big ol' mess. Enter Infinite Jest.

Even on the internet, the urge to wander off is overwhelming. Right now I have 21 different tabs open. I'm job hunting! I'm blogging! I'm on Facebook! (Honestly, I'm always on Facebook.) I'm reading articles about why old people's brains are faster and that makes them cranky! I'm looking at Google maps listing locations of famous movie shots in New York! I'm doing it all! It's basically like a Virginia Sims ad up in here, only instead of a skinny cigarette and a can-do attitude, I'm wearing sweatpants and haven't talked to anyone in hours. Living. The. Dream.

Being internet savvy has definitely messed with our collective ability to focus. We like things short- to medium-length: enough to get our feet wet, not enough to really go swimming. Anything much longer is likely to result us tabbing over and compulsively checking Facebook. But outside the screen, we should be able to focus, right? Well, my dad and I both tend to fall asleep with books draped over our faces, and I get the aforementioned literary narcolepsy on just about any story longer than 100 pages. Ironically, this has created a boon for people who create lots and lots of shorter media: think about the rise of the TV show on DVD, where once can watch 700 minutes of a story broken up into 43-minute chunks. I've received several messages from readers who have compulsively gone through my archives for hours; it's easy to do.

My gratitude for magazines, short stories, and essay collections knows no bounds. I subscribe to Harper's because it always has something to teach me in 3,000 words or less (including the memorable three weeks I convinced myself I becoming psychotic because they had run an article on women in prodromal psychosis and I, like most women, fit some of the symptoms). Dave Eggers, though he makes me howl, does a great job with the 826 Valencia kids and the Best American Non-Required Reading series, and the Best American is generally a great tool to use if you love reading but hate losing the plot. Short story collections are the spine of literary body, and I use them to audition new authors and to try out new subject matter. Anthologies are also great for this.

We're changing the way we read, which happens all the time - Hemingway and Faulkner shooed away purple Victorian prose with their styles, and we now rarely encounter sentences that begin with "O my pains are the cause of my utmost weariness," because that shit is annoying. We love our epics, but now they're being broken up into shorter stories (that Twilight nonsense, for example). And we still read magazines, even though the push is for us to consume them, not at the newsstand, but though our tablets. But we read: in bed, online, in short and long forms. Even if we get up at each chapter break to check our Facebooks, we read.

1 comment:

  1. Personally I find, actually I've always found so called "short stories" waaay too long to hold my attention. But, if a book is telling me something I don't know about something I care about - I'm hooked, even for hundreds of pages.

    At first, I'm inclined to 100% agree with you for connecting the internet age (I only have 6 tabs open! only!) with short attention span. But thinking about it some more, maybe part of the issue is that with the internet age we can immediately get at what we care about, what concerns us, what interests us. So maybe our tolerances for wading through things which seem boring at first have gone down because we can easily close the tab and text-search right for something that gets to the point.

    Maybe this amounts to the same thing. But, still, I'm headed back to the six different youtube tabs I have open of various al-jazeera political talk episodes.