Good book, bad ending: ‘A Stolen Focus’
Sucker-punched. That’s how I felt when I finished reading Johann Hari’s “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again” (Crown Publishers, 2022, 368 pages).
For nearly the entire book, Johann Hari focuses our attention on our inability to pay attention. He gives example after example of our vanished talent for deep reading, of being unable to stick with tasks for more than a few minutes, of children lacking the power to apply themselves to their school lessons. While reading these pages, I was nodding in agreement, knowing that I too was one of those who, for instance, skims articles on the internet rather than absorbing them. Though I don’t engage in social media, like the people Hari describes, I feel driven to jump from one task to another every few minutes — writing a book review, but then stopping to wash the dishes, telling myself to clean the basement but then settling down with a glass of wine on the front porch.
Early on in his book, Hari writes “Through no fault of your own, there never seems to be enough stillness — enough cool, clear space — for you to stop and think.” I live a life of solitude, for the most part, and should have plenty of “cool, clear space,” yet that observation struck home with me. As is the case for millions of us, the Internet is the great disturber of that stillness, and Hari’s diagnosis and advice on how to revive our ability to focus resonated with me.
Then came the last 20 pages of “Stolen Focus,” when Hari suddenly jumped from our age of distraction to writing a screed about global warming, which he calls “an unprecedented crisis.”
My shock and my objections to this intrusion have nothing to do with global warming, a subject on which I am unqualified to offer comment, at least on the science involved. No — I object because Hari’s insertion of this topic at this point in his book seemed ludicrous. Here’s a writer who’s just spent well over 260 pages of his book explaining why we are unfocused and how we might move away from this attention deficit disorder, but then suggests we use our new powers of concentration to battle global warning.
At one point, Hari proudly writes that “Within five years, the development of every single new coal mine and new power plant in Britain was stopped, and the government had been forced to set in stone plans to close down the ones that already existed. As a result of their campaign, the place that launched the world on the road to global warming had begun to seek a path beyond it.”
All well and good, but there are two problems with Hari’s reasoning here. First, he just undercut his own thesis. Despite his argument that we can’t focus on problems, including global warming, apparently some people did possess the ability to concentrate and close down Britain’s coal industry. Second, Hari fails to mention that China, as the New York Times and other news outlets have reported, is opening a new coal-powered plant every week. Are we to assume that somehow the Chinese have developed a technology to keep that smog locked up over China rather than spreading it around the globe?
And while calling us to do battle against global warming, Hari seems oblivious to other issues. After visiting a London park during the Covid-19 lockdowns, he describes the afternoon this way:
“I looked around us, where people were sitting in the middle of a workday under the trees, enjoying nature. This was, I realized, the only time in my life the world had truly slowed down. A terrible tragedy had forced us to do it — but there was also, for many of us, a hint of relief. It was the first time in centuries that the world chose, together, to stop racing, and pause. We decided as a society to value something other than speed and growth. We literally looked up and saw the trees.”
Now, there’s a mind-bending statement. Many people were probably sitting in that park looking at the trees because they were unemployed due to the lockdowns. Some had probably lost their businesses. Few people that I knew during the lockdowns felt “relief.” And no, we didn’t choose to “stop racing, and pause.” Our governments forced that on us. Besides, it’s likely that before Covid-19 people sat in the park and looked at the trees.
One of the blurbs on the back of “Stolen Focus” tells us to “read this book to save your mind.” Agreed. Social media, the constant leaping from one online site to another, the dopamine incited by the frenzied interaction of fingers on a keyboard or a phone while communicating with the world outside of the self, are breaking down our ability to pay attention to life beyond our screens. “Stolen Focus” addresses that danger.
But the last pages of the book are themselves a stolen focus from Hari’s thesis.
My advice: read until you hit the last chapter. Then close the book and move on.