When I finished the last page of Marina van Zuylen’s lovely little book, The Plenitude of Distraction, I immediately ordered a stack of extras. I’ve been giving them away as presents throughout this winter break, and if I have any copies left by the time we return on Monday, I’ll bring them with me to Grace. Stop by my office, if you want to check it out.
Why have I been pressing it into the hands of my befuddled friends and family with the zeal of a street-corner evangelist? It certainly helps that the book is relatively inexpensive, handsomely printed, whimsically illustrated, and—at just over fifty pages—short. But what turned me into a book pusher was van Zuylen’s refreshing take on our culture of distraction and on the guilt we feel when we succumb to it.
Not sure about you, but I spend a whole lot of time privately lambasting myself for lapses in productivity. Doing so, of course, only launches a foolish cycle, for sinking into a malaise about the undone items on my to-do list doesn’t help me get to them any faster.
Van Zuylen offers “a second look at distraction,” one intent on “extracting untold pleasures and insights from its alleged dangers, defending and celebrating the unfocused life for the small and great miracles it can deliver.” She asks us to stop flagellating ourselves long enough to consider whether certain daydreams and reveries ought to be indulged, celebrated even, and not condemned. Having taught seminars at Bard and Princeton on the philosophic virtues of idleness, she knows which thinkers to enlist to support her case and she has a well-tuned ear for quotable lines.
We live in a split-screen world, clamoring for us to pay attention to it. Van Zuylen is surely right when she writes: “Our handheld devices require absolute attention from us. Vampires of our concentration, they guard us jealously from self and solitude.” But they are easier to ignore when we’re absorbed in a book, especially one like this that invites you to stare out the window and think.
What a pleasure it is to read an essay that lays out its case in such unhurried, elegant prose. No book can unravel the challenges of our bustling lives—that to-do list still needs doing!—but this one has managed to reframe how I think about being distracted.
With the new year upon us and the school year about to resume, I’m following van Zuylen’s lead and resolving to cultivate a gentler approach to distraction both for myself and for my students. Unlike my previous new year’s resolutions, where my wandering attentions got in the way of new exercise regimes and low-carb diets, I think this year’s actually has a decent chance of sticking.