I've been having trouble writing lately and I think I've figured out why: When you are reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, that is all you are doing until it’s finished. It is total occupation of the mind and goes on for a long time. This week I came to the end of all 1348 pages after a month of reading, having started in the interval between Christmas and New Year. I am now liberated to go on to other things.
Somewhere in my mid-teens, perhaps fourteen or so, I took my mother's university copy of War and Peace off the shelf in the back room of our house. I had got it in my head that to read such a book was proof one was intelligent or worldly, and back then I was eager to demonstrate I was grown up and didn't need any more guidance. By this point in my life I had read large parts of the Bible out of interest (we weren't religious), the Dictionary, and many entries from my father's childhood encyclopedia set from the 1940s. I figured War and Peace was just another quasi-boring challenge that would somehow make me a better person.
It's a good thing I didn't tell anyone at the time of my plan to read the “greatest novel ever written” since I gave up five pages in, bogged down by long Russian names and titles, unaware of even the most basic historic knowledge which would provide some reference points for the opening scene at the salon of Anna Pavlovna.
I carted that copy of War and Peace around with intentions to read it for a long time, but along the way I stopped associating reading with "becoming a better person," and there were much more interesting things to read in any case. I forgot about it as a goal entirely, though I did later develop a love of 19th century classic literature a la Austen, Hardy, James, Elliot, and Dostoevskey.
I've always been a reader, but my discipline for books waned with the rise of the Internet. I know I’m not alone in the fact my attention span changed from the late 1990s onwards. As a young adult, I could spend hours in bed reading novels, would pour over newspapers and magazines on coffee shop afternoons, and did the New York Times crossword puzzle on Sundays (with help)–but by my late twenties, that ability to concentrate had started to wane. New responsibilities in career and relationships were partially responsible, but I can’t discount that this period of faltering attention coincides with the rise in laptops and cell phones, devices which I have steadily owned since the early 2000s.
The bad habits started small, but picked up over the years. Instead of turning to books, I sat in front of a screen for indeterminate periods of time, endlessly scrolling for news and entertainment. When I did pick up a book, audible notifications from my devices ceaselessly beckoned me to return, distracting me from reading at pace and ruining any chance of becoming absorbed in the story. With the phone charging beside the bed at night, it was the first thing I turned to in the morning and it ate up the initial thirty minutes of my day. I could feel my attention for things changing, not only in reading, but in conversation, in classrooms, and at work. It became increasingly difficult to exercise my mind for any length of time. I told myself that distractibility was part of the aging process, perhaps triggered by stress or anxiety, but over time I recognized my response to devices as a kind of addiction, something I was turning to hundreds of times per day.
I’m not sure what the specific catalyst was, though the seeds for change were definitely in the graduate school program I entered just shy of forty. Suddenly I was required to read extensively, retain, and synthesize information. An academic course in which I documented the history of research into neuroplasticity, followed by another delving into the concept of spiritual enlightenment, started me on a path of meditation study. Long periods of sitting focused on the breath helped me see the tendencies of my mind with more clarity, and trained me away from reaching for distraction when I was bored or uncomfortable. At the same time, new research exploring the impact of social media on attention became available and I learned I wasn’t alone.
Armed with more awareness, I made a few changes to my phone habits which I maintain to this day - turning off audible notifications, not using it as an alarm clock (and charging it away from the bedroom), and keeping it face down more than an arm's length away from me when I’m reading. These actions in addition to daily meditation helped return a certain amount of mind space to me.
What really shifted my attention back to reading with intensity, however, was the start of the pandemic when the door to life outside the home slammed shut. My calendar for Spring 2020 was fully booked with work and union travel until the shutdown announcements came. Those first few weeks were spent anxiously cancelling flights and hotel rooms, doomscrolling, and watching daily provincial and federal briefings. But once the initial stress was out of the way, the clock began to tick on daily life while I waited for things to start up again. And that was when I rediscovered my ability to lie in bed for long stretches, immersed in story.
With all those hours freed up, the novel came back to me as a way to travel, to witness the lives of others, and to see through eyes not mine. In the last two years I have read about 150 books and been transported around the world, back and forwards in time, and into specific experiences I could have no other way than through fiction. Although my mind is not as quick as it was in younger years, this capacity for absorption in literature has felt like a return to the mind I possessed before the Internet fully colonized it.
Which brings me back to War and Peace, which I now understand I couldn’t have read in my teens with any enjoyment, and without rewiring my brain I might never have returned to. When travel to visit family was cancelled last month due to illness, I had some hours of unexpected free time and the quiet felt a lot like the early days of the pandemic. Perfect for immersing myself completely into early 19th century Russia. I made much headway into the plot during those days off work, drawn in by salon scandals, political debate, and the romantic lives of the minor nobility. So taken was I by the characters I did not even skim the battlefield scenes, as I wanted to follow their lives wherever they went (though I did speed read Tolstoy’s polemics on historical understanding and the need for land reform sprinkled throughout).
After the holiday ended I looked forward to the times I could settle in for an hour or more and enter the walls of the grand houses and military camp tents, to watch from the sidelines regal ballroom dancing and cannons shot off from behind fortifications. The breadth (and length) of Tolstoy’s work is rare in its perspective from many vantage points, and his ability to draw you into all of them. There are certainly critiques one can make about the casual misogyny and Tolstoy’s own perspective as a noble, it is a novel of the 1860s after all, but in the main it is deeply engrossing and I feel expanded in my historical perspective on having read it.
The problem of attention, and our collective lack of it is changing the way we write and read in our culture. I have picked up several novels in the last year described as “groundbreaking” or “inventive” only to discover a lack of basic character development, or shallowness of plot. What is sometimes heralded in current literature is an appeal to brevity, and a simplification of narrative to fit within a prescribed number of pages. Which isn’t to say there aren’t authors producing great works one can live inside for a period of weeks or months. I just wonder how much audience will be left for these novels as social media and technology companies continue to create products intentionally designed for distraction instead of deep learning and personal growth. My return to attention feels like a narrow escape. Though I am not free from digital distraction in daily life, I recognize the need to manage it so as not to lose hold of myself as we wobble into the future. During the pandemic, my ability to immerse in story felt necessary, and I don’t want to lose my capacity for it.
January recipe: Moroccan Chickpea Stew
Since the turn of the new year we’ve started meal planning again, which means dusting off cookbooks and looking up new recipes to try. I had forgotten how planning the next week’s dinners before Saturday shopping simplifies the rest of the week. No running out for last minute ingredients or lack of inspiration to battle after a long work day. This recipe made it onto my list in the first week of the month; healthy, warming, and comforting winter food.
2 cups dried chickpeas - soak and cook these before starting the soup, or substitute with 2 cans of chickpeas
4 cups of chicken or veggie stock
3 tbsp cooking oil
1 large white or yellow onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
6 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1-2 tablespoons harissa paste
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 bunch of spinach, rinsed and chopped
Heat oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery and salt - saute until tender (8 minutes). Stir in garlic and cumin and cook for 1 minute. Stir in harissa and cook for 1 additional minute.
Add cooked chickpeas and stock. Season with salt, bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Once flavours have come together, add chopped spinach and stir in until wilted. Salt and pepper to taste.
In the workshop
Besides working on a quilt, some weaving, and learning to knit socks - I’ve been finding time to play with small textile assemblages this month. Using antique and new materials, I am learning how to convey meaning through composition, and finding a great pleasure in putting my mind and hands to textiles in a different way.
I meant to write more of a reflection on War and Peace but ended up with an essay about my attention span instead. These two reviews - one from The New Republic in 1916, and one 100+ years later in The New Criterion are reflective of much of what I thought while reading the novel, and might provide some encouragement if you have ever wanted to attempt this literary hurdle.
Speaking of attention span, Johann Hari has just released Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (my copy is on the way) but The Guardian published an excerpt early this month which promises a readable and well-researched look into the subject.
Station Eleven, the miniseries: Readers of this newsletter would likely enjoy Station Eleven, a post-apocalypse novel by Emily St. John Mandel, published in 2014. I think it’s one of the most realistic of the genre, and particularly enjoyed the fact it was set in places I know. There is now an HBO adaptation, and while it departs significantly from the novel (and loses some of its realism), I still recommend it as seriously good television. This show will not take your mind off the pandemic, but it will give you lots to think about as you ponder the phrase “Survival is insufficient” and follow characters in the aftermath of a cataclysmic flu. The power of story in shaping our lives is a central theme of both novel and miniseries.
These days feel like a never-ending parade of bad news, the latest being the rattling of sabers by the US and Russia. The irony of writing about War and Peace at this juncture is not lost on me. Tolstoy felt that war was both wasteful and inevitable, part of the inexorable march of human experience though foolhardy nonetheless. It seems that finding strength and ways to be of service to one another is the only way through when nothing else is really within our control.
This edition marks three years of Comfort for the Apocalypse, a record of sustained writing for me. There have been months off, and a period early in the pandemic when I stopped sending the newsletter entirely, but I’m still marking today as an anniversary of building connection between my little world and yours. Thanks for being here in this space with me, it certainly makes my life a little less isolated.
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If you want to hear more from me, find my blog at Red Cedar or follow me on Instagram @birdsongworkshop - otherwise, I’ll see you here again next month.
Perhaps easier than Don Quixote for me would be "A Confederacy of Dunces"--I have been dragging that one around for 20 years! https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/310612.A_Confederacy_of_Dunces
Lovely writing Megan, I think this piece deserves a wider audience.