Nineteenth Century Novel as Antidote to Multitasking

I am teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this month to my sophomores.  My well-annotated copy of the book is like the bible to me–all the good quotations and themes and references to Romantic literature are marked throughout.  I would be lost without it.  And yet, to teach the book really well, I have to continually engage in the act of rereading.  As I sat down to read the other night, I felt for the first time in a few years, just how very foreign the act of sitting down to read a dense 19th century novel feels compared to the activities of my everyday life.  Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so.  Most things I do in my life today don’t require the complete concentration, quiet attention and uninterrupted focus that reading 30 pages of Frankenstein requires.  And, it felt good!  I was happy for the enforced silence and the enforced focus.  I really can’t multi-task when I am reading Frankenstein the way I can when I am, say, trying to check my email and text a friend and watch tv at the same time.  The 19th century novel, in fact, seems like the perfect antidote to multitasking.  If one tries to multitask while reading one of these tomes, one simply doesn’t really read.

English teachers the world over sing the praises of works of literature such as those by Dickens, Austen, the Brontes and Shelley because of the complexity of thought, the multifaceted sentences, the insight the books provide into time periods and cultures before ours and because of the strong vocabulary used throughout.  A newly valuable aspect of  these books is their role in demanding that the reader immerse him or herself in an act of complete focus that is becoming more and more rare today.  I used to tell kids that it was hard to read these books because it was hard to imagine what it was like to live in a world without television.  Only 10 years later, I have to amend this introduction by telling students that it’s hard for us to imagine what it was like not to have television as well as cell phones, email, facebook, texting, video games, im-ing and the internet.  And, this list grows everyday.

While the concentration I dropped into felt welcome, I could also feel my 21st century brain becoming antsy.  My thoughts danced around.   My fingers itched to grab my smart phone to check the email that I had checked only five minutes before.  Every bone in my body seemed to fight against the sense of slowness this act of reading was creating.  “You mean I have to sit and read for an hour?  Two hours?  Can’t I get this done more quickly? Isn’t there a short cut?  Can’t I hyperlink this?”

If I was feeling it, then my students certainly feel it.  Born as recently as 1995, the year I graduated from college, these high school sophomores probably have very few activities in their memory that require such slow, un-technological focus.

And yet, I see this activity as even more important.

It seems to me that as an English teacher I might do well to have my students reflect upon this act of reading.  Students are stretching out, slowing down and fighting their urge for instant gratification. It might be good to have them share their impressions about what it’s like to do this.

There is much to be learned here, and more thinking to be done upon this topic.


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