The Fight for Our Attention

We may live in an endlessly distracted world, but where we focus our gaze still matters: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Getty; The Atlantic

In one early scene in Lauren Oyler’s novel Fake Accounts, the narrator snoops through her boyfriend’s phone. His apps are arranged in an unfamiliar way, and looking with fresh eyes makes all the colorful options—a camera, an internet browser, two ride-sharing services—immediately overwhelming. “The effect was to prevent the eye from focusing without exactly exhausting it either, making you feel that you were seeing too much and nothing at all,” she observed in a section of the novel adapted for The Atlantic.

The remark is an encapsulation of what it feels like to be on the internet—or just about anywhere—nowadays. This situation is relatively new. As the scholar Tim Wu chronicles in his book The Attention Merchants, newspapers were the first to advance the idea that a captive audience might be a lucrative product. Now, that notion is everywhere, and we must fight our way through a deluge of forces competing to be noticed. Leila Chatti captures this experience in her poem “Attention.” Distractions as varied as a truck sputtering outside and an engagement album on Facebook accumulate like a never-ending to-do list, until the speaker must submit “to the most persuasive god, the most recent.”

Chatti’s words invoke the wisdom of another poet, Mary Oliver, who wrote that “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” and whose body of work serves as an argument that where we fix our gaze matters. As a growing set of books argues, it could even be instrumental for the fate of democracy. After all, Hannah Arendt wrote, propaganda doesn’t need to persuade in order to be successful; it simply needs to confuse, to exhaust—to distract.

Two years into a pandemic that has literally warped our brains, reclaiming concentration may seem like a tall order. But the literature of attention can offer lessons. Oliver’s essay collection Upstream models how to notice, and in Julie Otsuka’s novel The Swimmers, the titular characters turn to mundanity in the face of crisis, consumed by the rhythm of “stroke, stroke, breath.” And Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing is a vital reminder about the value of distractedness—so long as it’s mindfully embraced rather than forced.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading


Arsh Raziuddin


“At first there was too much information to take anything in; I felt frantic, like I had just entered a Walmart with the whimsical idea that I might get some socks, maybe a magazine, maybe a new kind of frozen burrito, and instead was confronted by the overwhelming vagueness of my desires.”

illustration of people pasting newspapers to a wall


Does advertising ruin everything?

“The 21st century’s most successful industrialists, like Facebook and Google, harvest another commodity as abundant as wheat or crude oil. In the new industry, the fields are media and entertainment, the harvesters are advertisers, and the crop is attention.”

the sky with clouds

Christopher Anderson / Magnum


“All day, the world makes its demands. There’s so much of it, world, / begging to be noticed.”

Mary Oliver

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

‘Attention is the beginning of devotion’

“[Mary Oliver’s] final collection of essays was called Upstream. In the title piece, she remembers getting separated from her parents in the woods as they stroll along a creek. But what she recalls isn’t the trauma of being lost, but the attentiveness she achieves in that charged moment of aloneness.”

illustration of an eye with a charging cord swirl in the middle

Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The great fracturing of American attention

“Recent years have seen the rise of a new mini-genre of literature: works arguing that one of the many emergencies Americans are living through right now is a widespread crisis of attention. The books vary widely in focus and tone, but share, at their foundations, an essential line of argument: Attention, that atomic unit of democracy, will shape our fate.”

photo of a pool

Zara Pfeifer / Connected Archives

The big secret in our small routines

“Life often happens without much incident, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth paying attention to.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

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