The word is that technology is shortening our attention spans. Like the fungus that invades the minds of the infected in The Last of Us, our concentration is being devoured by the very abundance of information in front of us.
A King’s College London study last year found that 49 per cent of 2,000 adults surveyed felt their attention span was shorter than it used to be, while 47 per cent agreed that deep thinking had become a thing of the past.
Meanwhile a Danish study confirmed that concentration spans were narrowing as a result of the abundance of information available to us.
The phenomenon is nothing new – in 2015 Times Magazine claimed that we have the attention span of a goldfish, explaining that it usually takes us just eight seconds to lose concentration.
While the extent of the problem might have been exaggerated in this particular study, it clearly reflects our concerns about the impact of technology on our attention span.
And it can only be assumed that this problem is getting worse, judging by the role that technology and social media is playing in many of our lives.
I have to admit that I find there is nothing better than a juicy headline or quick Tik Tok to beat boredom. I spend far too long every day scrolling, but as a booklover, I have also found myself choosing shorter and shorter novels to read and avoiding longer books.
So, to break the snacking habit, I have been leaning into boredom and rejecting the impulse for new content by sampling a longer, more intellectually nourishing read.
About a month ago I picked up The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. At more than 1,400 pages, it is one of the heftier books I own and as a result has been languishing on my bookshelf for years.
Initially, I felt nervous to be starting such a long novel – especially seeing I find it difficult to not finish a book – but it wasn’t long before I settled into its rhythm.
I’m now halfway through this enormous book and am pleasantly surprised to be enjoying the scope of this epic story of betrayal and revenge. Each night before picking it up, I look forward to losing myself in a world that has become familiar to me, and I’m dying to know what happens to the unfortunate protagonist.
After spending so much time with this long read, I understand that it would be impossible to create the same mood, suspense and immersion in a shorter book.
At the same time, I have seen commenters on social media criticising the length of similar classic novels – perhaps a sign in itself of shrinking attention spans.
They suggest these novels have been inadequately edited. Even Anna Karenina, considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of all time, has been called out by Twitter users in this way.
One queried: “All right, did Tolstoy just not have an editor? Anna Karenina could’ve been like 400 less pages.”
Another pointed out a particular section that was too long:
“I am enjoying Anna Karenina but can’t help think an editor might have helped with the extensive section about cutting grass.”
And another had a piece of advice for the author:
“Halfway through Anna Karenina. Tolstoy needed an editor.”
But while reading Dumas’s tome – as in Anna Karenina – I have come to realise that, in a way, the length is the point. It is a world to immerse yourself in, not for a few nights, but a few weeks or even months.
This might mean feeling bored with the lack of variety at times. Afterall, it is unusual to sit with someone else’s story for so long.
However, the development of the story means that a surprising chapter will be just around the corner, with a slower section perfectly setting up a breathtaking escape, an astonishing crime or a dramatic denouement.
I remember having similar experiences reading other lengthy books or series in the past, before I started opting for shorter reads.
Hilary Mantel’s undeniably lengthy Wolf Hall books are considered modern classics, and partly for the immersion they provide in the lives of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It is the small but devastating conversations, the subtle looks exchanged in the royal court, and a character’s quiet moment of reflection that make the books sing.
Similarly, Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels move slowly, but evoke the streets of Naples like no other. It might be a cruel remark or a shy smile set against the backdrop of a hot, dusty street that shines a light on the complicated social hierarchy, and ultimately, the human condition.
At times these books might be considered boring, but ultimately, they are deeply rewarding. Like a pause before the punchline of a joke, the lulls in long novels only make the action sweeter when it arrives.
By embracing the boredom, it is possible to find the bliss of long story and an editor with a light touch.