i've got more in common with a goldfish than you might think
"Your problem," said the Protestant (obviously not his real name) to
me this weekend, "your problem is that you have a two-second attention
span." He's right, of course, and the fact that he was trying to tell
me a long and extremely complicated story to do with Northern Irish
politics affords me no excuse.
For years, I've been trying to make the best of my total inability to
concentrate. I like to pretend to myself I have a quicksilver
intellect, quickly making connections and skipping on polymathically
to the next topic. Unfortunately, it's more the case that I'm just
totally unable to concentrate on anything for more than, I'd say, five
and a half minutes.
As you can imagine, this makes life very difficult. Now, we've all
heard evolutionary biologists tell us woman are genetically programmed
to be able to concentrate on more than one thing at once, whereas men
pour everything into one activity and become metaphorically deaf to
everything else (or, in the case of my dad watching television,
literally deaf to everything else, up to and including a smoke alarm)
. I can see that this is very useful when you have a baby, and it's
vitally important you don't get so wrapped up in Deal Or No Deal that
you are blissfully unaware that your pride and joy is bawling its
little lungs out in a cesspool. And has colic.
But until that time, it's just bloody annoying. And I'm hardly being
helped by today's media, who pander to my blink and you'll miss it
attention span by feeding me all my information and entertainment in
tasty, bite-sized pieces. I got an email yesterday offering to send me
the Guardian web site front page to my inbox every day, as if the
massive effort of scrolling down the web page itself might overload my
three remaining neurons.
A friend of mine is in the middle of reading War and Peace. I've got
to face up to the fact I'm never going to read that, just like I'm
sure deep down I'm never going to sit through Citizen Kane or
Battleship Potemkin, or any silent film. God, that makes me feel guilty. I haven't been to the cinema for months. Going to remedy that by seeing A Cock And Bull Story tomorrow. But that's only because I'm never going to be arsed to read Tristram Shandy. Argh...
My butterfly intellect has other secret repercussions, too. During my
English degree I very quickly realised I didn't have the dedication to
plough through any novelist's complete works, and a fair selection of
criticism, and write an essay, all in the space of a week. So I
focused on poets, and letter writers, and journalists. I realised,
reading Alexander Pope in the second year, that my ideal author would
exclusively write epigrams. That way, I could be a world expert after
about two hours.
Sadly, to the best of my knowledge no such author exists. e e cummings
is pretty pithy, I suppose, but I don't know what to do when it comes
to prose. I've been using my literary dilettantism to justify buying
short story collections - Tibor Fischer's Don't Read This Book If
You're Stupid and lots of Borges - and ploughing through the
collected journalism of The Hitch.
Anyway, I'm typing this while watching a very good Horizon documentary about intelligent design. So I, er, better give that my full attention...