Impact of Shorter Attention Spans on Readers and Writers

Twice in one day last week, I encountered references to people’s reduced ability to focus these days. Our shorter attention spans are due largely to the ever-present distractions from technology—and I know this is true, based on my own behavior.

The first time this issue surfaced was during the Association of Missouri Mediators conference I attended, in which the keynote speaker, Professor Noam Ebner of Creighton University, cited the following statistics:

  • Today we spend on average three minutes on a task before we are distracted.
  • Once we are distracted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task.

Moreover, he said, humans are not good multitaskers. Contrary to what we think, every distraction detracts from and delays our ability to perform the task we were doing. The ubiquity of smartphones is the primary reason for our distraction, though other forms of technology are factors also. Think of when email first entered the workplace and dinged at us every few minutes. Now those dings follow us whenever our smartphone is within hearing range.

This photo isn’t of me. In reality, as I listened to the webinar, I played the video on my desktop, listened to the audio on my phone, took notes on my laptop, and kept my tablet nearby. No wonder I was distracted.

Later that day, while I was listening to another presentation during the AMM conference, I read an article (yes, I was distracted by technology) on The Passive Voice blog entitled “Shorter Attention Spans.” The article quoted Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, during the Frankfurt Book Fair:

“You have whole generations being trained for shorter attention spans than books require.”

As a writer, I had to stop and think about that statement.

I remember my childhood years when I spent whole days immersed in a book, from after breakfast until dinner, with only a short break for lunch. During summer months, I often consumed two books a day for a week.

Even into high school, when I had the time, I could read for hours on end. I read my favorite Phyllis Whitney young-adult mysteries and the like in a day. I read many classic novels (such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre) over the course of a few days, or no more than a week.

Even as an adult, despite working 50 to 60 hours a week and raising two kids, I escaped into books when I could. I’d take a weekend afternoon, or stay up late into the night, to read. It might only happen once every month or two, but it was a favorite respite.

But now? I still read a lot. I probably average a couple of novels a week. But  I find myself reading for a few pages, then switching my tablet to email, then checking Facebook, then back to the novel. My attention span is definitely shorter.

What does this mean for society?

Professor Epner talked about how it is harder for parties in a mediation to focus on problem-solving when their attention spans are shorter. This leads to the need to have shorter mediation sessions, and to let the parties break to seek out information and do other “homework” in between sessions.

The ubiquity of screens and digital interruptions have impacted the quality of our communications also. According to Professor Epner, we don’t interpret body language or word inflection in the same way we used to. Our intuition and empathy have changed as a result.

All this isn’t necessarily bad, because technology has added new ways of communicating as it has changed face-to-face opportunities. But technology makes communication different. And if we don’t recognize the changes and consider them in our communications, we will not resolve problems and differences as well as we used to.

Now, think about what this means for readers and writers.

I described my own experience as a reader above. I do not read without distractions as I used to. I do not think I’m unique in this regard.

If other readers have changed as I have, then writers need to consider how to grab readers in shorter bursts and how to retain them as long as possible, or re-grab them after a distraction. Shorter chapters. More reminders of setting and situation in novels. More headlines and breaks and sidebars in nonfiction. More uses of metaphors that relate to today’s readers.

Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster said we need to be sure books remain “central to the discussion of what’s going on in the culture,” while at the same time using social media to reach consumers more directly. I agree with both points. The challenge is to handle both book-length writing and social media snippets equally well, for the functions that each does best.

Writers, what do you do to attract and retain today’s readers that you didn’t do ten years ago?

Haunting Books: Three Historical Novels About the West

Each October I’ve devoted one or more posts to the “haunting books” I’ve read during the past year—books that stay with me long after I’ve read them. This year, I’ve been diligent about keeping a list, so I have more than enough books to discuss. In this post, I’ve decided to focus on three historical novels that take place during the Civil War and its aftermath.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

The first novel is Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, which is probably the most haunting of the three featured in this post. I hadn’t heard of the book until one of the members of my book club suggested we read it. On one level, it is a typical Western, featuring the settling of the West and battles between whites and Native Americans. On another level, it is a love story between two men who save each other from loneliness and poverty. On yet another level, it is about how far parents will go to save a beloved child.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who becomes a female impersonator in a saloon, then with his friend and lover John Cole joins the Army to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The two men adopt a Sioux girl named Winona when the Army leaves her orphaned. After the Civil War, Thomas and John seek a peaceful life, but rejoin the Army to find Winona, who is being returned to the Sioux in exchange for white captives.

Barry is true to most of the tropes in Western novels—gunfights, war scenes, and chases on horseback (both slow and fast). Barry tells a rollicking tale, but unfortunately some of his plot twists seem forced, such as when friends and witnesses show up suddenly when Thomas is trapped.

What makes this novel is Barry’s prose. The language in Days Without End is gorgeous, if sometimes inaccessible. Barry doesn’t use quotation marks to denote dialogue, which I dislike, and which makes it difficult to interpret sometimes. Thomas’s grammar is uneducated, but his words are lyrical, and the character makes surprisingly insightful comments. I often wanted Barry to be more straight-forward in recounting the story and helping his readers along, even while I appreciated his mastery of language.

This novel “haunts” me because of its gruesome descriptions of war, and also because of the uniqueness of the narrator’s voice. I recommend the novel, if you are prepared for a violent depiction of 19th century battles ranging from Indian skirmishes to the relentlessness of the Civil War. But of the three books I’m featuring today, this was my least favorite.

Enemy Women, by Paulette Jiles is another violent story of the Civil War, though not quite as gruesome as Days Without End.  The Colley family in the Missouri Ozarks has tried to avoid involvement with either side in the Civil War. Nevertheless, after their mother dies, a band of Union militia (not the regular Army) attacks their home and arrests the father (a judge) and hauls him off to prison. When the only son leaves home, the three daughters are left alone. They head for St. Louis to try to locate their father. The oldest girl, Adair Colley, is imprisoned in a Union women’s prison in St. Louis, after she is falsely accused of being a Southern sympathizer, and her younger sisters seek relatives in Tennessee.

Through most of the first half of book, Adair is in prison and is mistreated by the matron and other prisoners. Major Neumann, the Union officer in charge of the prison orders her to write a confession so he can release her. She writes truth and fantasy (which together create a compelling explanation of how she got where she is), but she refuses to confess. Adair and Major Neumann fall in love through their discussions over her “confessions.” He helps her to escape, and although their plans go awry, she does get away and sets off for home. The second half of book describes Adair’s adventures on her way back home. Meanwhile, Major Neumann has problems of his own, but is finally discharged from the Army and tries to find Adair.

I live in Missouri and know something of the Ozark country where most of the novel takes place. But I knew nothing of the women’s prisons during the Civil War, nor very much about the violent and undisciplined militia units that supported the Union Army. The novel makes clear that there were atrocities committed by both Northern and Southern participants of that era.

Although some of what happens to the Adair family and Major Neumann was not very believable, it was a good story. Also, it was generally true to the history of the region, based on primary source material Jiles included for her readers.

What haunts me about this book is the realization of what war does to civilians caught in regions where battles rage. (I’m seeing the same theme in the Vietnam War series now available on PBS.) In addition, Enemy Women depicts the savagery of men (and women) caught up war, particularly when they are not subject to any kind of military order or discipline.

And I’ve loved the Paulette Jiles’s prose in every book of hers I’ve read.

Which brings me to News of the World, another book by Paulette Jiles that also has haunted me this year. In this novel, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging Civil War veteran, makes his living by reading newspapers to residents of small towns across Texas. He is dragooned into taking Johanna, an orphaned white girl who was kidnapped by Kiowas at age six (she is now ten), back to her white aunt and uncle. She has lived with the Kiowa since she was a small child and has been so acculturated to their way of life that she believes she is Kiowa. She objects strongly to being returned to white society and fights the Captain at every step.

But along their trek across Texas in the Reconstruction Era, which is full of typical Western adventures and perils, the Captain and Johanna develop a respect and affection that is both sweet and sad. It is sweet, because it is very real, and because they are two very sympathetic characters. It is sad, because it seems there is no way their bond can continue past the current journey.

Finally, the Captain delivers Johanna to her relatives, which does not go well. It would spoil too much to reveal what the good captain does next. I will only say that the book shows the power of love, even when love is not quite enough to rid the world of its troubles. I loved the novel for its spare prose and for the wonderful characters Jiles created. I wish we all had people like Captain Kidd and Johanna in our lives.

* * *

There are parallels in these three novels. They all have Western themes. They all have beautiful prose that is the envy of any writer. They all depict love found in unexpected places and families built from circumstances rather than from genetics. Days Without End may haunt me the most, because of its gory battles. But of the three, News of the World was my favorite, followed by Enemy Women.

What is your favorite historical novel?

Libraries Out Loud

I’ve written before about the wonderful libraries in the Kansas City area, including the Kansas City Public Library, the Mid-Continent Public Library, and the Johnson County Library. I am proud to say I have library cards with all three systems. And I am prouder to say that Kansas City ranks as one of the most literate cities in the United States, according to a study by Jack Miller, president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut (though we are only #16 in 2017, falling slightly from 2015 when we were #14).

On July 18, 2017, I attended a program at the Kansas City Public Library called “Libraries Out Loud.” The program featured the leaders of four Kansas City library systems—Johnson County Library’s Sean Casserley, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library’s Carol Levers, Mid-Continent Public Library’s Steven V. Potter, and Kansas City Public Library’s Crosby Kemper III. These four knowledgeable professionals discussed the current state of our libraries, as well as their assessment of what the future will bring for public libraries. The program was moderated by Nick Haynes, who moderates the KCPT Channel 19 program Kansas City Week in Review.

The July 18 session also featured four short documentary films by Michael Price about the state of libraries in Kansas City. The film segments explored four areas of practice in libraries today. They were titled “Building Communities,” “A Literacy Beyond Words,” “Bridging the Great Digital Divide,” and “For the Planners and Dreamers.” All four shorts are available online here.

A major theme of the evening and of the film shorts is that libraries serve the unique needs of the public in their communities, whether those needs be for education, information, or communication. As Sean Casserley said, libraries are “places of the mind” where we can discover “what it means to be human in the 21st Century.”

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

Another theme these librarians emphasized was that literacy is more than about words. It involves knowledge about anything from the environment to fitness to food. Crosby Kemper stated “libraries are about turning information into knowledge . . . about organizing information.”

And libraries are places where anyone can get access to knowledge, as well as help in sifting good information from inaccurate. They are the great equalizers in our unequal society. They are refuges for all.

With these broad missions in mind, the public libraries in Kansas City and its surrounding communities provide the following in one or more locations:

  • Yoga classes
  • Classes on English as a second language
  • A seed library (where patrons take seeds, grow them, and return seeds after their harvest)
  • 3-D printers, which, among other uses, help entrepreneurs create product prototypes
  • Consulting and research for small businesses
  • Hands-on nature programs for children.

They provide ebooks to patrons who never enter their doors, and they mail hand-selected books to homebound patrons who get to the library (Yes, via snail mail—wouldn’t it be wonderful to receive a book picked just for you by a professional librarian on a regular basis to feed and develop your reading habit?). They provide digital connections to those who do not have internet access at home, and meeting rooms for a variety of community programs.

And they even show people how to butcher pigs. (Yes, the Johnson County Library once had a program on how to butcher pigs. Not the actual slaughtering, but to demonstrate where various cuts of meat come from on the animal—knowledge our urban and suburban community otherwise would lose.)

Despite the rapidly changing publishing and digital environment, the four librarians who spoke on July 18 were all enthusiastic about the future of libraries. They see their missions as developing with the times, but remaining relevant.

In the future, libraries might

  • Provide second and third chances for people to receive an education through GED programs, links with online university classes, and continuing education. As Steve Potter said, libraries can provide “remediation wherever you are in life.”
  • Become data hubs to help the public access information and answer a variety of questions
  • Serve as links between the public and their health care providers to transmit health data
  • Collect stories from people and serve as a repository of local history

Woodneath Branch of the Mid-Continent Public LIbrary

Some of these possibilities are already happening, and others are certainly within sight. The Mid-Continent Public Library has purchased all past editions of the Kansas City newspapers, which they will make available to the public. MCPL also has a genealogy center and The Story Center which fosters written and oral storytelling.

I came away from this program marveling at what a great resource we have in the public libraries in our community. And hopeful that they will remain great resources in the future.

Whether you live in the Kansas City area or not, I encourage you to watch the four short documentary films. And local residents can tune-in to watch a special Kansas City Week in Review at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 4, on KCPT that will discuss these films and our great library systems. (This broadcast was publicized at the July 18 event, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. You might want to check your TV schedule.)

What do you like best about public libraries? And what do you hope they become in the future?

Discovering Jane Austen

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, two hundred years ago tomorrow. I first encountered her novels in the spring of 1970, when I was in the ninth grade and cooped up at home with the mumps. I didn’t have a bad case of the mumps, and I felt pretty healthy. But I couldn’t return to school until the swelling in my cheeks and jaw went down.

“I’m bored,” I whined to my mother.

“Find a book to read.” That was her stock answer any time one of her children said they were bored. Either that, or she told us to clean our rooms.

“I’ve read everything.” I whined some more, as only a fourteen-year-old girl can whine to her mother.

Mother went to the bookshelf in the living room, which contained mostly adult books. Other than the encyclopedia (which was educational) or the twenty or so volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books (which were pretty well sanitized by the editors who condensed them), I was only allowed to pick a book from the living room bookshelf if I had parental approval.

She skimmed the shelves and pulled down a book. “Here,” she said. “Read this.”

It was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

I took it back to my bedroom and curled up under the covers and opened the book. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, that sounded promising. Even fourteen-year-old me got the humor in that line.

I read the whole book over the next few days. And loved it.

After I was fully recuperated and able to go to the public library again, I searched for other books by Jane Austen. I didn’t read her novels back to back, but I did read them all over the next couple of years.

I really liked Northanger Abbey (a lot like Victoria Holt and other Gothic novels I had read), but I didn’t think any of Austen’s other novels were as good as Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility was supposed to be her best—and Mother said she liked that one best—but I preferred Pride and Prejudice. Marianne Dashwood was too silly. Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park were fine, but still not as good as Pride and Prejudice.

By the time we studied Pride and Prejudice in my Honors English class during my senior year of high school, I had read everything I could find by Jane Austen—all the novels she had published in her lifetime. My classmates complained about having to read Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, no,” I said. “It’s wonderful!” Not many of them believed me.

Fast forward to when I learned there was a partial manuscript by Jane Austen that someone had completed and was publishing—something new by Austen! I was a working mother, with very little time to read. But I rushed out to find a copy of Sanditon. And I did the same thing when I found a volume that included both Lady Susan and The Watsons, which I’d never read before either.

And, of course, I have watched every televised and movie version of Austen’s novels. I saw the 1940s version of Pride and Prejudice when I was in college. I was very disappointed—the costumes were all wrong, Mr. Darcy was not particularly compelling (sorry, Mr. Olivier), and they skipped huge chunks of the book. The 1980 BBC version shown on Masterpiece Theatre was much better.

In fact, that 1980s version got my husband interested enough in Jane Austen that he read Pride and Prejudice, and later took on some of Austen’s other books as well. (At least Sense and Sensibility—I’m not sure if he read them all or not.)

And then there was the very swoonable 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

Sigh. . . .

I learned to like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park better from the Masterpiece and movie versions, though I still like Pride and Prejudice best.

At this point, I’ve read all her novels at least three times. I’ll probably read them all again at least once more before I die.

I look forward to seeing new film versions in my lifetime also. All in search of the perfect Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. And the perfect Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson, wonderful actress though she is, was too old for the role) and Edward Ferrars. And Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty good, but not quite officious enough for me) and George Knightley.

I have so many more contacts with Austen’s work to look forward to in life. And my interest all started because I was bored one day in 1970.

What have you done out of boredom that turned out to be a good thing?

Sleepless in Kansas City

One of the disadvantages I’ve found in getting older is not sleeping as well as I did in my youth. Ever since childhood, I’ve had trouble sleeping during times of stress, but now I hardly ever sleep for eight hours straight. Most nights I wake up once, but some nights I can’t fall asleep, and other nights I wake up around 1:00 or 2:00am and lie awake for an hour or two.

Rarely do my dreams wake me up. In fact, I don’t remember many of my dreams. I used to, but this seems to be another age-related change. Or else most of my dreams now are boring.

I do still dream in color. In the 1940s, most people reported dreaming only in black and white, but now 80% of people say they dream in color. There is some speculation that the shift is related to the development of color television.

My husband read somewhere that monophasic sleep (solid sleep for a single period each night) is actually a modern phenomenon. People used to have biphasic sleep, in which they slept for two periods in a 24-hour day. That, apparently, is where the practice of naps and siestas came from.

Some experiments have found that when people have no regular sleep schedule imposed on them, they gravitate to two four-hour periods of sleep separated by a couple of hours. Many of my nights follow this pattern. Since I learned this factoid, I’ve tried not to worry when I lie awake in bed. After all, I also read somewhere that just lying quietly gives one 80% of the benefit of sleeping (though I doubt that.)

Older generations in my family also had wakeful periods at night. My father went to bed around 8:00pm whenever his schedule permitted. He would often get up again around 10:00 or 11:00, drink some Pepsi and go back to bed. Then he was ready for his next day to start at 5:00am.

My mother, by contrast, liked to stay up reading until 11:00 or so. But she often fell asleep on the couch, until my dad woke her up. In the morning, she would stay in bed well after he was up—or at least that’s what she did once she didn’t have kids to get off to school.

When I visited my paternal grandparents as a small child, my bed was usually the living room couch with a chair placed next to it so I wouldn’t roll off. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and saw my grandmother sitting in a chair nearby, smoking a cigarette. She sat with one leg tucked up under her, the way I still sit whenever I can do so without opprobrium. I don’t smoke, but I think of her whenever I move around my house in the dark and whenever I curl my feet up in a chair.

My husband’s grandmother also used to walk the halls when she couldn’t sleep. She would move from bed to bed trying to find a restful spot—some nights she spent time in all three bedrooms in their house.

Ereader in night mode

Using an ereader doesn’t help my sleeplessness. I know it’s a bad idea to have that light shining in my face when I’m trying to sleep, but what else is there to do at 2:00am? I use a blue filter to minimize the brightness and I turn on the night mode in my reading apps. With these adjustments to the screen, reading often lulls me back to sleep.

Before I began writing, I used to try to distract myself in the middle of the night by making up stories in my head. Some of the ideas for my novels developed during these nocturnal musings. But now that I’m a writer, that’s work! I still do it sometimes, but since I now want to remember any good plot points I imagine, it’s not as restful as it used to be.

So I read newspaper headlines instead. The Wall Street Journal is delivered to my email inbox shortly after midnight, and The New York Times headlines come in the wee hours of the morning. Trying to focus on economic and international news is usually enough to put me to sleep. If it doesn’t make me mad.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night?

Mid-Continent Public Library ReadLOCAL Initiative

I wrote last week about National Library Week, and I announced that the Mid-Continent Public Library was now offering my books, Lead Me Home, and Now I’m Found. This week I want to tell you about the library’s new ReadLOCAL initiative, which MCPL announced last week.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big proponent of the Read Local movement to promote local authors. I’m one of the administrators of the Read Local KC Facebook group and I’m also involved with Hometown Reads Kansas City. These groups are working to connect authors and readers in our community.

Now, the Mid-Continent Public Library has taken the Read Local philosophy one step further—they’ve curated a special collection of books by writers who live within the library’s service area.

As the MCPL website says about their collection,

“ReadLOCAL encompasses a vast range of writing styles and genres—from mysteries and westerns to juvenile nonfiction and healthy cookbooks. Books in the ReadLOCAL collection stem from various publishing backgrounds—self-published, hybrid published, small press, and large or traditional publisher (with the odd New York Times bestseller sprinkled in)—and have all been published within the past few years.”

And I’m pleased to say that they have put my two novels in their ReadLOCAL collection.

I encourage all readers in the Kansas City area to browse through books in the MCPL ReadLOCAL collection. Just one more reason to appreciate your local library.

And keep coming back to this MCPL site, because more books and more writers will be added over time!

What programs are available to support local authors in your community?

Libraries Transform—Celebrate National Library Week, April 9-15, 2017

This week, April 9-15, 2017, is National Library Week. It’s a time to celebrate libraries and library workers and to promote library use and support. According to the American Library Association website, the theme for National Library Week this year is “Libraries Transform.”

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for public libraries. I remember many trips to the library in my hometown when I was a child. When I visited my grandmother in the summer, she took me to the library near her house so I could check out a stack of books to keep from being bored between trips to the beach.

Later, I was the “library mom” for my kids when they were each in first grade—I checked books out of the library to take to their classrooms every few weeks. And I enjoy libraries now as places to meet with other writers, to hang out in between appointments when going home is inconvenient, and to write when there are distractions at home.

As for being “transformed” by libraries, I think it is fair to say that I wouldn’t be the reader—and therefore the writer—that I am today if I hadn’t spent so much time in libraries as a child. Over the years, I’ve used the books I’ve checked out of libraries to learn and to escape. Books let me experience the world as it really is, as the ideal it should be, and as the fantasy I sometimes wish it were. Most evenings, I choose to read instead of watching television—even when I can stream programs I like. There’s something about using my imagination as I read that visual experiences like television and movies can’t duplicate.

The library I use most frequently now is the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL).  It has many branches throughout the Missouri side of the Kansas City region. I also have library cards with the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) and with the Johnson County (Kansas) Library, because I’m in those libraries often enough that I might want to check books out there.

All three are excellent library systems. I live midway between two MCPL branches, and the system has many other branches throughout the part of Kansas City in which I live. I’m at some branch almost every week. And I check out most of my ebooks through the MCPL Overdrive system.

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

The KCPL system has a beautiful branch in downtown Kansas City which offers excellent literary and historical programs for readers, and it also boasts an art gallery with changing exhibits, often related to Kansas City history. Another KCPL branch near the Plaza shopping that is a great place to hang out. Both branches have nice coffee bars also.

And I have regular meetings in the newly renovated meeting rooms at the Johnson County Central Resource Library. If it had a coffee bar, I might even be tempted to move to Kansas.

All three libraries, as well as the Olathe (Kansas) Public Library, have recently joined their catalogs. So now I can link my three library cards and search on one site to find books anywhere. I still have to check them out of the library where the book is located, but the combined catalog makes my searches much easier.

I’m also pleased to announce that the Mid-Continent Public Library has acquired my two novels, Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. The Olathe Public Library already had a copy of each book, so now they are available on both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line. I’m most pleased when readers buy my books, but I’m thrilled when people read them—however they find a copy.

So, those of you in the Kansas City area who have not yet read my books, now you have no excuse! (Unless all copies of the novels are all on hold at the library.)

How have libraries transformed you?