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"During a two-week stay in Norway, my daughter, then aged thirteen, called home one day by cell phone from a mountaintop. My husband thought at first she'd been hurt, but she simply wanted him to resolve a midhike teen debate about some Beatles' lyrics."

For me, this passage pretty well sums up the worldview of author Maggie Jackson as expressed through her recent book, Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. The book is filled with anecdotes, several of them personal, about people who blithely jet-set around the country and the world on a whim: a woman who flies to Italy for the weekend to run in a marathon with a friend from London; college professors meeting for lunch having just returned from international conferences; a group of friends who fly to Maine for a "weekend of restaurant hopping"; or 500-mile day trips to "do lunch."

The 500-mile lunch journey was one of the author's excursions. She used it to illustrate how blasé she claims our culture has become about travel; when she mentioned to persons she encountered that she was traveling 500 miles to meet for lunch, she claims she received no response from the cab drivers or ticket agents with whom she shared this information. Jackson interprets this as indicative of a culture in which long journeys have become commonplace.

As a commonplace nobody myself, I would interpret the silence with which Jackson was met differently. Some people have to work for a living. I'm sure the cab driver put in at least 500 miles that day. The difference is, he was working, covering the same airport or train station loop again and again, day after day, barely making enough of a salary to pay his bills and keep a roof over his head. A 500-mile day trip to meet for lunch is not an option in his world. The cab driver had two options for responding to the perky gloating of Ms. Jackson: ignore her, or punch her in the face.

Jackson seems to think that America, or at least the America that is the audience for her book, is a world of "doing lunch" and trips to Europe; a life of academe for the professionally accomplished and casual first-date sex for young cyber-savvy adults. It would be difficult to count which she references more, airport lobbies or trips to MIT. In her world, all young people are enrolled in college and most adults are connoisseurs of fine cheeses (which, of course, they make special trips to purchase and consume in the country of origin).

Overwhelmed by the trappings of the author's world, I lost focus on the gist of her argument. Indeed, beyond what she states in her title, I don't feel Jackson made an effective effort to restate or clarify her position; nor did she, in her rambling, anecdotal travelogue, present a convincing case for her argument. Dark age or not, jetting to Italy to run a marathon, spending a spur-of-the-moment weekend restaurant-hopping in Maine, and meeting hot, willing chicks over the internet, while a bit decadent, hardly sounds like a society on the brink of collapse. It requires a fair amount of orderliness to keep both airlines and internet dating sites running. We're still a long way from a grim, Pythonesque "bring out your dead" scenario.

The book includes heavily documented endnotes. A digression into the history of the fork as an eating utensil was interesting. Overall, however, I found the book alienating. Jackson is not writing about my world. I see, too, that I am the first person to borrow Distracted in the two years the book has been on the shelves in the Hawaii State Library System, which suggests that the all-encompassing "we" she uses throughout her text is more than a little myopic in scope.

Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (2008) by Maggie Jackson.

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
pastilla
Feb. 22nd, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
I was trying to find what area of the country she was from, and came across this brief thread:

http://www.tdmischke.com/forum/index.php?topic=56.0

Another disconnect that's odd to me is between women's media and Everywoman. For years women's shows and magazines have pitched their ideas to the typical middle-class housewife. (Watch the Jack LaLanne archives in YouTube, and you'll hear repeatedly his awareness that women were running their households on tight budgets.) It confuses me when I turn on the Today show or open a Women's Day magazine and see they feature so-called "budget" everyday recipes that are "a reasonable $40 for a family of four" or a new spring outfit "for only $200" or a room makeover for an "amazing $2000."
davidd
Feb. 23rd, 2010 02:18 am (UTC)
Jackson addresses several of the issues raised in that discussion in her book. She completely pans Wikipedia, for one thing.

I do have to wonder about people like those commenting in this discussion who consider listening to audio books as "reading." I'm sorry. It's not reading. It's somebody telling you a story. Different parts of the brain are involved, although you may be getting the same information.

When I was working at the intermediate school a few years ago, one of the younger language arts teachers allowed the kids to count audio books as part of their required reading log.

To me, Jackson was just plain annoying. Jet-setting all around the country and the world, sending her kid to Norway... as I said, different world than the one I live in. She makes a point of mentioning vacation homes or second homes several times. Wouldn't that be nice!

I finally let my subscription to "Coastal Living" magazine expire last month. I was a "charter subscriber" from the very beginning. I got tired of reading about "cottages" that are 3,800 square feet, and looking at pictures of elegant cookware that would cost me a year's salary.

I imagine, being as you are among the upper echelon of higher education now, that your household lives the life described in Jackson's book. You're posting these comments from your mobile phone while lunching in Paris, yes?
pastilla
Feb. 23rd, 2010 03:18 am (UTC)
You're right, it's not reading. Perhaps a better term would be consumption? When I was painting the house and doing all that packing and cleaning I "consumed" about 10 books a month, close to 75 last year. Something I noticed was at night, when I started to fall asleep, I could still hear the narrator's voice in my head; since it was well-read, well-written literature, resonance like that in the brain was a good thing. Hypothesis: was your ex-colleague on to something? While it does not encourage reading skills, audiobooks saturate the listener with cadences of language and vocab (in context) that teenagers who don't read much won't get anywhere else.

And re: personal eminence Ah, yes, the lofty heights of living in a tiny exclusive university town are indeed staggering. So far I haven't felt the need to travel for new experiences: my local grocery store has just begun carrying pig uteruses.

Edited at 2010-02-23 06:20 am (UTC)
davidd
Feb. 23rd, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)
Excellent points about the audio books. I had not thought about the "speech modeling" angle. Of course, locally the storytellers who get the most acclaim are those who "talk pidgin," which would kind of defeat the purpose.

I'll defer comment on the porcine bonne bouches to sjonsvenson.

(Did I mention how often Maggie Jackson drops French phrases and references to French authors?)
sjonsvenson
Feb. 22nd, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
The picture she paints of the US is one that reaches the rest of the world.
Is it then a wonder that not everybody in the world feel sympathetic to Americans?


OTOH ... taken out of context ... aren't you the rich Anerican that hopped over to Spain to throw some tomatoes around and fly back home? :lol:
If you write that in a story you can write it out as an off-hand anecdote -Oh, yes I went to Spain for ... but ...- and insert the same alienating feelings in your audience.
Or you can put emphasis on the cultural aspects of the tradition, fitting it in into a good narative description of Spain and gain the interest of your audience.

Remember, the story is in the telling.
davidd
Feb. 23rd, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
I could present my life in such a way, yes; jetting to Spain to throw tomatoes; living on the beach in Hawaii; I'll be having dinner with the former head of the art department of a New York college here in a couple of weeks; and of course, I'm frequently exchanging both quips and culinary tips with my European friends!

But one trip to Spain four years ago hardly constitutes a "lifestyle." Especially considering that I probably have yet to finish paying for it.

You're right, the story is in the telling. For me, this author alienated me as an audience in her approach to the telling. I do not entirely fault her; rather, I realize that I am probably not her intended audience.
dblume
Feb. 22nd, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
Love that you've been posting, Mr. D. This one really hits home, too. Even though I live and work in Silicon Valley, I can't identify at all with Jackson's anecdotes. That's simply not my world, and whatever point she's trying to make would be lost on me.
davidd
Feb. 23rd, 2010 02:29 am (UTC)
Silicon Valley type... shouldn't you be taking the wife and kids to Tokyo Disneyland, before shuttling those kids off to a private boarding school in Austria? You can combine visiting the kids with ski vacations during the winter months. ;-)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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