Long Reads, Short Attention Spans

August 25, 2014

Like many people, I’m constantly scanning Twitter and Facebook for news. I have an altogether unhealthy relationship with my phone. My fingers rush across the screen with an urgency that should be reserved for protecting the homeland from incoming missiles. As if clicking on links and deciding whether to retweet them was a matter of life and death.

Debbie Galant

If you spend a lot of time on Twitter, you’ll be the first to know when a big star dies. You’ll be the first to say, “Oh no, James Gandolfini,” or “Oh no, Philip Seymour Hoffman,” or “Oh no, Robin Williams.” (Although in my household, it was my Facebook-facing 25-year-old who first saw the news about Williams.)

There’s that momentary euphoria of knowing something first. But being a Twitter news addict ultimately means that by the end of each day, all the news is a blur and you’ve got a knot in the back of your neck from playing ping pong with your brain.

And then, every once in a while, you pick up a New Yorker that’s been sitting in your bathroom for months and find yourself into a wholly compelling narrative that goes on for pages.

One night last week — a week dominated by endless ice bucket challenges, unrest in Ferguson and the barbaric execution of James Foley — two very long stories arrested my attention. The first one, in GQ, was about a hermit who lived for almost 30 years in central Maine with no human contact. The other, in The New Yorker, was about a woman who discovered that the man who had deserted her and their baby 25 years earlier was in fact a spy.

Each took half an hour or more to read, about the same time it takes for a story to unwind on Ira Glass’s “This American Life.”

Narratives that span decades don’t fit neatly into the category of news, especially when they are about hermits or spurned lovers, or the kind of non-newsworthy people who generally wind up on “This American Life.” They don’t tell us so much as about the current moment as they tell us about our times.

People have been talking for years about the emergence of a “slow news” movement —drawing on the rhetoric of the “slow food” movement — but the idea is largely about taking the time, in the “24-hour news cycle,” to get things right. Long reads, epitomized by this site, is a related, but different, concept — and in my opinion a closer analogy to slow food. It’s not just about slowing down so you don’t get burnt by the frying pan. It’s about slowing down enough to actually taste something.

In an era of diminishing attention spans, stories that run 7,000 to 8,000 words, like the ones I read last week, or “Schooled,” Dale Russakoff’s 11,742-word opus on the Newark schools controversy, which appeared in the May issue of The New Yorker, are an endangered species.

It took me almost a month — and a trip to Virginia — to find an afternoon to read Russakoff’s piece. But the beauty of a story so well laid out and painstakingly researched is that it was just as relevant in June as it had been in May. Indeed, it’s still relevant now.

I will leave it to the neuroscientists to figure out how to restore our attention spans and I’ll set aside, for the moment, the question of how to pay for the time that goes into creating long quality pieces of journalism.

I simply commend to you the concept of digging into some really long reads. There’s one more week of summer. Plenty of time to pull away from Twitter for an hour or two, and find something really juicy to sink your brain into. Then come back and tell us what you read.

Debbie Galant is associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State. She also writes essays on Medium.

Above photo is courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Michael Cory