Michael Wood, ‘Distraction Theory: How To Read While Thinking of Something Else’, Michigan Quarterly Review, 48.4: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0048.410
I am grateful to Matt Blaiden for pointing out the relevance of this essay to my ‘mind-wandering’ theme, the subject of this post, and this one. Wood’s essay is the fore-runner of a book, The Habits of Distraction, which should come out soon. I have nearly mentioned his earlier book Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (Cambridge, 2005) a couple of times in earlier posts. It’s more subtle in its investigation of literary knowing than I have been so far.
Wood’s distraction essay argues that ‘only something like the concept of distraction will catch the contours of our experience in all kinds of reading’. He gives three situations where readers need to let themselves be distracted.
1. The puns in Finnegans Wake (baby-babble-Babel, and others) are seen as a ‘small-scale working model of the whole process of making multiple meaning’. We need to let them draw us away from the present occasion.
2. On genre, the idea is that the distracted reader or viewer is able to experience and engage with the effects of genre better than the deliberately attentive one. What looks like irony to the latter works as the fulfilment of genre’s possibilities to the former.
3. On style, the example is Blood Meridian. Distraction here leads to immersion; attentiveness (Wood argues) cannot stomach ‘more or less unreadable passages on every other page’, and thus misses out on the chance to experience the novel fully.
Wood asks: ‘Why isn’t distraction always and only trouble; at best a sidetrack, a diversion, a missing of the main event? A short answer might be that linguistic trouble is scarcely ever only trouble; there are energies, temptations, snatches of instruction there.’ This has something in common with the drift of my argument in relation to mind-wandering and cognition. It suggests that in many more ways literature exploits and validates our tendency to move away from the immediate perceptual situation. Wood worries that literary criticism undervalues this, and even works against it.
However, I think Wood is also pointing at something that’s a bit different from my earlier emphasis. I have been following through the suggestion in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences article that mind-wandering has probably evolved for a reason – to draw the mind towards more important concerns or new solutions. Although Wood talks about ‘instruction’, I think he is prizing something a bit more subversive (‘energies, temptations’) about what we gain from distraction. I wouldn’t want to invoke evolution and thereby impose any fixed hierarchy of importance on the experience of reading. Perhaps sometimes the point of mind-wandering is to guide us towards something more pressing, but at other times it must allow us to question a set of priorities imposed upon us. It must help us to question what really matters.