Pay attention

by Steve

A painting showing astronaut John Young reflecting pensively.

I’m probably reading too many things right now. I have several books on the go, plus some other books that I haven’t officially given up on, but probably won’t be picking up any time soon. There are a few magazines and old newspapers kicking about, with articles destined to never be read. My Instapaper account is neglected. So are some of my favourite blogs. But I keep plugging away.

In some ways I like having a few things to choose from for my daily read. My reading wants and needs vary according to where I am, and when it is. I’m generally a little too sleepy on my morning commute for anything too deep. By the time I find somewhere to read at lunchtime I haven’t got that long to read, so something reasonably short, or episodic, works best. On my way home I might have a better attention span, but that depends on my day. If I grab some time at home to read I might be more inclined to tackle something larger. Or I might be too busy working through a Tivo/DVD backlog, which is obviously a whole other story.

So, there are advantages to this kind of reading. I find out a little about a lot of stuff. I don’t get as frustrated or disillusioned by reading as I can do when I’m ploughing through one book that is hard work, or just badly written. There is a degree of liberation in moving from book to book, and from not worrying too much about failing to finish a book, or not managing to read a must-read article.

Yet, this is all a little problematic too. Sometimes it can feel like reading (or watching a TV series, or sport, or whatever other leisure consumable) is more a chore than a pleasure. It is overwhelming. The sheer volume of unconsumed stuff has put me off a lot of things I’ve enjoyed in the past. It stops being fun when you have that odd guilt of countless books/comics/DVDs/whatever else staring at you, waiting. When something feels more like a job than a pastime we’re in trouble.

Attempting to read the pile of books I’ve accumulated can feel like a Sisyphean task. I’ll never get to the end. And by focusing on working my way through those books, a handful at any one time, am I actually properly reading any of them? Sure, some books are just page-turners, but what of those that would benefit from closer reading?

One book I did read from beginning to end, in a couple of sittings, was Quack This Way, a transcript of a conversation between the writer David Foster Wallace and the lexicographer Bryan Garner. One reason I read it so quickly is that it was short (One reason I have several books on the go is that they are long, and sometimes a break seems the only way to guarantee I eventually finish them, despite that tactic actually resulting in me being far less likely to finish). The book was also compelling reading, really fascinating stuff on how to write, and how to write well.

The key message seemed to be “pay attention”. If you pay attention in life, then your writing will improve. This is not just in terms of content and detail, but also at the level of writing with clarity, with your reader in mind, so that you can communicate your thoughts properly.

And this applies to reading too. Once I finished the book I knew it was the sort of book that I would want, even need, to read again. I’m usually opposed to re-reading. There are too many new books to read. Yet I often find myself flicking through old favourites, reading pertinent passages, discovering sections I’ve long forgotten.

Another short book I’m working my way through is Jean Baudrillard’s America. It is another book that I’m sure I will return to – there are passages that deserve a great deal more thought, there are passages that have frankly gone way over my head. It is the sort of writing that demands time and attention from the reader.

So, I’m not sure there is a real solution to how to read, one book at a time, or several. But perhaps having a few different books on the go at once has helped me piece together something about paying more attention to what I do read.

And I guess paying attention is important elsewhere. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I find the ideas behind psychogeography interesting. It is one reason why I picked up America, which while not a psychogeographic tract per se is still an example of looking at place in a new and meaningful way.

Psychogeography is based on ideas of drifting around urban environments, noticing what is usually ignored, picking up on the wider feel and meaning behind environments. In some cases it just seems like odd people wandering around an old industrial estate marvelling at the wire fencing, a search for something profound where perhaps there should not be, at worst a cultural tourism.

But at best it is a way of acknowledging, scrutinising and even celebrating places that usually don’t get any attention. As a philosophy it is a valid one. We should find value wherever we are, if we can. We should try to understand our environment. We should understand what place, and our idea of place, does to us, and indeed what we do to it. Essentially, we should pay more attention to our surroundings.

And within that sense of place I guess we should pay attention to the people within those environments too. It is easy to write off people if they annoy us, be it people we know, or just the general public. Or I guess we might just think everyone is fine, without putting much thought into it, which seems just as bad.

We could give more thought to our interactions. There are those conversations where nobody is listening, they are just waiting for their turn to speak. If we all just paid a little more attention to one another life might go a little more smoothly. It might also create more conflict, but it would hopefully be a constructive form of conflict.

I suppose the challenge re: paying attention is working out what to prioritise, and to decide what we shouldn’t worry about. Complete all-day-every-day attentiveness would probably drive us crazy. Some things probably don’t warrant the attention. Sometimes we need to pay enough attention to ourselves to know that we can’t do everything. Other times we need to look beyond ourselves. I have no answers. But I’ll keep looking out for them.

Image from NASA, via Flickr