“[A] memoir-cum-meditation on the idea of attention. . . . Schwartz is brilliant, funny and clear.” —NPR
As technology embeds itself ever more deeply into our lives and distraction takes hold as our universal affliction, Casey Schwartz grapples with the essential questions of attention: what is it? How can we conserve it? And what else is lost when we give it away? With humor, candor, and captivating stories, Schwartz reflects on the decade she spent taking Adderall to help her focus (or so she thought) and embarks on a quest to pin down the precious and elusive resource of attention. This investigation takes us on an eye-opening journey through the work of thinkers such as Williams James, David Foster Wallace, Aldous Huxley, Simone Weil, and out into the world beyond.
From our craving for diversions to our craving for a cure, from Silicon Valley consultants and psychedelic researchers to trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté, Attention explores the modern landscape of distraction and the possibility of finding focus despite it. Brilliantly combining memoir, biography, and original reporting, Schwartz documents the abundant demands on our attention with piercing insight and illuminates the path to reclaiming authentic life.
"Casey Schwartz’s new book, out in April, is helping me reevaluate my relationship with screens at a moment when I’ve never been more dependent on them ... Closing the laptop, putting the phone in the other room, and curling up with this book has been the best part of my day."—Vanity Fair
"Attention: A Love Story had me rapt. Casey Schwartz is a formidable reporter, a rigorous researcher and a true artist of prose. She makes complicated information easily understood and elevates seemingly simple observations to a richer plain of meaning. More than that, though (and this is the toughest job in the business) she is an honest broker when it comes to telling her own story. Unflinching yet never confessional, this book took me to uncomfortable places but always in the most capable hands. It’s the finest of its kind I’ve read in ages."—Meghan Daum, author of The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars
“An extraordinary and moving treatment of that most ineffable of topics: our own attention and how we spend it. Schwartz has successfully mixed her own experiences with Tom Wolfe-like journalism to create an utterly engaging read."—Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants
"Schwartz’s book brims with ideas ... Schwartz is unusually self-aware, though she may not always think so. She is honest about her own vulnerabilities and self-doubt ... By personalizing her account, and her journey, she makes it a vivid, memorable thing, not simply instructive."—Post and Courier
"An antidote to the countless manuals devoted to attention-hacking and technology detox, the tired denouncements of our iPhone dependence ... It is consistently interesting and beautifully written."—New Statesman
“An insightful hybrid of memoir and academic study ... Thought-provoking ... This is a rich inquiry into what it means to pay (and maintain) attention in a world increasingly permeated with distraction and interference.”—Publisher’s Weekly
“A personal and professional study of the struggle with attention in an age of distraction ... Unfailingly honest ... By personalizing her account, and her journey, [Schwartz] enhances the book's potency without diluting its authority ... Being attentive is an acquired skill. Schwartz helps us think deeply and clearly about what it offers us.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Essential ... Attention: A Love Story asks two simple questions: ‘Why are we so susceptible to all the escape routes our technologies offer us in the first place?’ and ‘What are we fleeing?'”—Bitch Media
“With fascinating research and illuminating interviews, this is ruminative, provocative, and discussion worthy.”—Booklist
About the Author
CASEY SCHWARTZ is the author of Attention: A Love Story and In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis. She contributes regularly to The New York Times and lives in New York City.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Part III: A Brief History of What Matters
So what, then, is the point? What is the reason to cultivate and devote one’s single-minded attention? Is this kind of attention even still a possibility? Was it ever? In the years after Adderall, these were the questions I often thought about.
I approached from all angles. Walking the loop in Prospect Park, I listened to attention self-help books through my headphones, books such as Deep Work by Cal Newport and Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey. I was listening not in order to help myself (or so I believed), but, rather, to get a sense of the latest advice, and the language in which attention was now commodified. Bailey, speaking in existentially unruffled tones, offered many useful suggestions: Leave your phone in the other room when you need to get work done. Drink more caffeine. “We are what we pay attention to,” he reminds us. Then he said something that surprised me: “Letting your attentional space overflow affects your memory.”
Indeed, I soon discovered that this is a classic finding of memory research, known for decades: distraction breeds forgetting. To say it another way, the way the neuroscientists say it, interrupting someone’s attention by introducing a “secondary task” (responding to a text message, for example) means this person will not “encode” their present circumstance in all the rich, associative detail necessary for a memory to form and hang around awhile. Attention, it turns out, does not concern only our present circumstance. It bears directly on both our past and our future. What will fail to make it into my memory bank because I’m too busy scanning headlines and replying to text messages to pay attention to my life? And yet, even in the midst of that very train of thought, I go ahead and pull my phone out of my pocket, for no particular reason.
That’s how it is. We have entered into a situation where the gadgets we carry around with us—and the cognitive rhythm they dictate—are pitted against the possibility of deep engagement, or thorough “encoding.” They ask us to be anywhere but here, to live in any moment but now. What struck me was this: we treat such changes as inevitable, even while we lament them, seek antidotes and alternatives, enroll in meditation classes, digital detoxes, silent retreats. I wanted to understand why we choose to pixelate our own attention spans, then hungrily search for ways to patch ourselves back together.
I found that I was still asking such basic questions as: What do we mean when we talk about attention? Perhaps it was inevitable to ask such questions now, in our Silicon age, glued to our screens as we are, our attention in pieces, forever divided among the countless demands our devices ask of it. In any event, these were the questions I found myself asking, found myself stuck with. In the years after Adderall, these questions became the quest I embarked upon.
In the beginning, I did not see how desperately personal this whole thing really was. After all, what is the question of attention really about, if not this: What is worth paying attention to? Hanging on to? What matters?