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Distraction

Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature

Early novel reading typically conjures images of rapt readers in quiet rooms, but commentators at the time described reading as a fraught activity, one occurring amidst a distracting cacophony that included sloshing chamber pots and wailing street vendors. Auditory distractions were compounded by literary ones as falling paper costs led to an explosion of print material, forcing prose fiction to compete with a dizzying array of essays, poems, sermons, and histories. In Distraction, Natalie M. Phillips argues that prominent Enlightenment authors—from Jane Austen and William Godwin to Eliza Haywood and Samuel Johnson—were deeply engaged with debates about the wandering mind, even if they were not equally concerned about the problem of distractibility.

Phillips explains that some novelists in the 1700s—viewing distraction as a dangerous wandering from singular attention that could lead to sin or even madness—attempted to reform diverted readers. Johnson and Haywood, for example, worried that contemporary readers would only focus long enough to "look into the first pages" of essays and novels; Austen offered wry commentary on the issue through the creation of the daft Lydia Bennet, a character with an attention span so short she could listen only "half-a-minute." Other authors radically redefined distraction as an excellent quality of mind, aligning the multiplicity of divided focus with the spontaneous creation of new thought. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for example, won audiences with its comically distracted narrator and uniquely digressive form.

Using cognitive science as a framework to explore the intertwined history of mental states, philosophy, science, and literary forms, Phillips explains how arguments about the diverted mind made their way into the century’s most celebrated literature. She also draws a direct link between the disparate theories of focus articulated in eighteenth-century literature and modern experiments in neuroscience, revealing that contemporary questions surrounding short attention spans are grounded in long conversations over the nature and limits of focus.

About the Author

Natalie M. Phillips is an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, where she is an affiliated faculty member of the cognitive science program and the cofounder of the Digital Humanities & Literary Cognition Lab.

Endorsementss

"A stellar contribution to cognitive historicist studies, Distraction is engagingly written, lucidly argued, and highly original. This book will be read, reviewed, and talked about."

- Alan Richardson, Boston College, author of The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts

"The problem of managing the distracted reader did not arise in the age of digital media. Eighteenth-century writers experimented with distraction to hold their readers’ attention and, in the process of doing so, advanced theories of concentration in eighteenth-century psychology. Weaving together literary criticism, history, and cognitive neuroscience (replete with the trailblazing fMRI studies of novel reading), Phillips tells a brilliant and witty story of attention and distraction. This is cognitive historicism at its best, a touchstone for interdisciplinary inquiry."

- Lisa Zunshine, University of Kentucky, editor of Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies

"This book has it all: a brilliant and thorough tour of eighteenth-century literary history, an equally brilliant and thorough tour of recent cognitive neuroscience, and a serious philosophical reflection on distraction and attention. The book is written for its readers in a widely accessible and enjoyable style. So wide-ranging is it in scope and ambition that it can lay claim to being a late Enlightenment manifesto for bringing together our humanistic and scientific ways of knowing."

- Blakey Vermeule, Stanford University, author of Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?

"In her remarkable study, Phillips provides a new set of lenses for the reading of eighteenth-century literature. Her scrutiny of forms of attention (and its deficits) that literary texts debated, tested, and enacted will change the way we understand the formal strategies and fictive scenarios involved in representing both the scatter-brained and the mono-maniacally focused denizens of eighteenth-century fictional worlds. Well informed but not overawed by the debates and discoveries of contemporary neuroscience, and conversant with the narratology on representation of minds, Phillips offers a contextual study of the first order."

- Suzanne Keen, Washington and Lee University, author Thomas Hardy’s Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy’s Imagination

"A superb example of cognitive historicism, Phillips' book makes modern cognitive science attend to its own intellectual history. Her literary study focuses our attention on the eighteenth century and makes a strong case for the period as the climax in an ongoing story about distraction, wandering minds, and scattered attention. After fresh, insightful readings of Samuel Johnson, Eliza Haywood, Laurence Sterne, and William Godwin, Phillips treats her reader to a scientific stunt, delivering Jane Austen by way of magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In truth, her exposition is throughout punctuated with references to neuroanatomy and neuroimaging in order to establish the untold ways in which literature informs current thinking about the brain."

- Brad Pasanek, University of Virginia, author of Metaphors of Mind: An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary

Reviewss

"Thoroughly informed by engagement with 17th- and 18th-century philosophies of mind, the book is also impressive for its periodic forays into modern cognitive science... Distraction is an important addition to the literature on 18th-century fiction and cognition. Highly recommended."

- Choice

"It reads... as a manifesto for the possibility of a kind of research in which disciplines are combined not in the sense of serving each other, or borrowing from each other, but in true synergy. From all the aspects of Phillips’s book that are commendable – and there are many from its originality and clarity of argumentation through to its powers of interpretation – this is the most significant. Literature and science are on an equal footing here and the fruits of their combination are remarkable."

- British Society for Literature and Science

"Among its many strengths, Distraction’s greatest contribution is its elegant articulation of Phillips’s interdisciplinary methodology, which interlinks literary historicism and cognitive science to foster "productive dissonance between fi elds" (222)."

- Eighteenth-Century Fiction
Johns Hopkins University Press
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