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Cultivating Attention: The Challenge of Reading Great Literature 

November 7, 2022


As a literary critic, writer, and professor, I have the great privilege of working with literature every day, and helping others to encounter the beauty of great stories as well. Evangelization and discipleship through beauty is vitally important for our modern culture, for God is perfect Beauty as well as perfect Goodness and Truth. Stories, poetry, and all the arts can help us both to grow in our own faith and to share that faith with others in a compelling way, as I’ve written about in an earlier piece.

But it’s not easy.  

Many readers find themselves discouraged, encountering a gap between their desire to engage with great tales and the rather more difficult reality of the experience. Recently, I contributed a chapter to With All Her Mind: A Call to the Intellectual Life, a volume that particularly encourages women to engage with the intellectual life. Whatever your inspiration might be, it may be the case that you’ve decided to ‘up your game’ and read more widely and deeply (hurrah!). You’re ready and willing to dive deeply into the intellectual life and be nourished by the beauties of literature. 

But when you sit down with a great book—perhaps the Odyssey or Beowulf, perhaps Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion—you might be distressed to find that you have difficulty concentrating. Perhaps your mind wanders. You might even feel bored—and then disturbed by your own boredom! Surely you shouldn’t be bored when reading some of the world’s greatest literature! What’s wrong with me? you might ask. 

Peace! Take heart. 

This reaction of difficulty or disappointment is extremely common; in fact, if you make the effort to engage in the intellectual life, you should expect to feel it at some point (if you don’t, then give thanks to God for this blessing). 

To read great literature and reflect on it is, by the very nature of the activity, to step off the treadmill for at least a moment. It is an opening for the operation of grace, and one that we sorely need in our distracted, overly busy culture. But one result of being enmeshed in this results-oriented, fast-paced culture (within the Christian community as well as outside it) is that we have nearly all assimilated certain unhealthy and unrealistic expectations about speed and the visibility of ‘results’ in whatever we do—whether that’s ‘results’ in sharing the faith or in terms of our own ability to read and think deeply. 

Many people today have difficulty with reading complex texts of any kind, even when they want to do so, because our culture tends toward constant attentional fragmentation. We are constantly bombarded by distractions: the chimes of text messages, the beeps and pop-ups of social media notifications, the allure of the next suggested video, the next item on the newsfeed, or the next episode in the watch list. 

We are often also overscheduled and busy, rushing from one activity to the next; our attention may be further fragmented by anxiety and stress. The result is that it can be very difficult for people to stay focused on any one task for more than a few minutes. We have become so accustomed to the mini-adrenaline rush of switching our attention from one thing to the next that sustained attention feels, by comparison, boring. 

It can be distressing if you realize that your ability to focus is not what it used to be (or what it ought to be). Fortunately, we need not despair! The first insight here is that we must be patient. Just as we must be patient with others as we evangelize, we must be patient with ourselves. 

In Tales of Faith: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel through Literature, I offer some practical advice about how to get the most out of engaging with great literature. Here, I’ll include one of the points that I covered: the practice of cultivating the habit of attention

Attention is like a muscle that gains strength from use. A useful strategy to build up ‘attention strength’ is this. As you begin your reading session, first remove exterior distractions: put away cell phones, close all those browser tabs, turn off push notifications for your media. Then provide a scaffolding device for sustaining interior attention to the text. 

Scaffolding comes in many forms. For silent reading, it could include annotating the text as you read, with thoughts and reactions in the margins, or keeping a journal of reactions during reading. Another type of attentional scaffolding involves combining some sort of physical activity with reading or hearing the text: if one’s body is physically engaged with some activity, it seems to reduce the amount of mental distraction. Try listening to an audiobook while you go on a walk or do housework, or doodling while you read. 

So let me offer one more piece of reassurance and advice. If your attention needs some building-up, that’s perfectly OK! Start with short pieces and practice scaffolding to sustain your attention. Sit down and read a poem—just one poem! Read just one passage from a book—even just a paragraph! As you do so, practice cultivating your habit of attention. Attend to quality, not quantity. 

And, lastly, make some space for silence in your day (here I write about why and how to do that). If you read just one paragraph or one short poem attentively and allow yourself space to think about it during the day, you will have had a genuinely rich intellectual and literary encounter. Step by step, that’s how we do it! And as you experience the rewards of sustained attention, it will become ever easier to stretch to longer pieces. 

Godspeed your reading! 


This article is adapted from a portion of the second chapter of Tales of Faith: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel through Literature (Word on Fire Institute: 2022).