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
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.”