Forum: My smartphone ruined my attention span and reading list

Where I once read Capote, Proust, Flaubert, Woolf and Stein, now I endlessly scroll PeopleOfWalmart.com.

Edie Everette

Edie Everette

By Edie Everette / Herald Forum

My life has straddled the great divide between the eras of pre- and post-smart phone. Because I grew up in the 1970s, my life span is like a balanced teeter-totter where on one end sits my younger self addicted to eating sunflower seeds while on the other, elder end of the ride I sit addicted to … my smart phone.

Gather ‘round children and let me tell you about the days before cell phones. They were sensory days filled with the weight of hard-bound library books, of gently plucking dust from the fragile tip of a record player needle, of standing in a phone booth in the middle of the night in some deserted neighborhood holding a weighty Yellow Pages directory with one hand while searching frantically for change with the other. It was an era of memorizing phone numbers, of being able to hide, of living what singer Chet Baker suggests in that song, “Let’s Get Lost.”

Before cell phones, we waited. When our favorite song finally played on the radio, we savored it. If we happened to be at home when the person we had a crush on called, it was exhilarating. Everywhere were empty pools of psychic space where a mind could roam without interruption.

Before smart phones I possessed a world class attention span that allowed me to sit for hours on my parent’s living room couch next to a lamp with a ceramic rooster base. In that seat I read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” at age 11. In the same spot at age 13 I finished reading “Gone With the Wind” at 3 a.m. and bawled my eyes out. It was on that couch — or in a claw foot tub in some apartment — that I read the great Russian writers along with Marcel Proust, Zora Neale Hurston, Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein (never lose your place in one of her books), and dozens of others.

Fiction is such a fantastic place to learn about life.

Of late I have been carrying a half-read copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” around. It is so beat up from thrashing about in my shoulder bag for months, along with spending a night in the driveway, that it may no longer be readable. I have traded reading this book — that The New Republic once called “The finest autobiography in our time” — for looking at hideous photos of Walmart shoppers.

I have allowed a smart phone to leech out my smarts.

To take my attention span back, I will have to fight. I am in the early days of using a phone app blocker. I will try this versus throwing my smart phone into a lake which is probably some sort of environmental crime. I know writers who have used various methods to discipline themselves regarding cell phones. One of my favorite essayists, Jo Ann Beard, locks her phone in a timed safe in order to write. And then there is the tale of Mary McCarthy, apocryphal or not, wherein her beau Edmond Wilson locked her in a room until she reached a specific word count.

Should I become too irritable without progressive dopamine hits and fail, at least I can be assured that many Netflix and Amazon Prime series are so well written these days that they are practically literature! Plus, I’ve already read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”’; what more can anyone expect? (But really, have you seen that guy with the hairy back on peopleofwalmart.com?)

Edie Everette is a writer and news junkie who lives in Index.

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