The Book Briefing: Tim Wu, Mary Oliver, Hannah Arendt


In one of the first scenes of Lauren Oyler’s novel Fake accounts, the narrator snoops on her boyfriend’s phone. Its apps are laid out in an unusual way, and looking at it with fresh eyes makes all the colorful options – a camera, an internet browser, two ride-sharing services – immediately overwhelming. “The effect was to prevent the eye from focusing without exactly exhausting it either, making you feel like you were seeing too much and nothing at all,” she observed in a section of the novel adapted for Atlantic.

The note is a summary of how it feels on the internet – or pretty much anywhere – these days. This situation is relatively new. As the scholar Tim Wu tells in his book Merchants of attention, newspapers were the first to advance the idea that a captive audience could be a lucrative commodity. Now that notion is everywhere, and we have to fight our way through a deluge of forces competing to get noticed. Leila Chatti captures this experience in her poem “Attention”. Distractions as varied as a crackling truck outside and an engagement album on Facebook pile up like an endless to-do list, until the speaker must submit to “the most persuasive, most recent”.

Chatti’s words invoke the wisdom of another poet, Mary Oliver, who wrote that “mindfulness is the beginning of devotion”, and whose entire work serves as an argument that the place where we fix our gaze matters. As a growing body of books argues, it could even be decisive for the fate of democracy. After all, writes Hannah Arendt, propaganda does not need to persuade to succeed; he simply needs to confuse, to exhaust — to distract.

Two years into a pandemic that literally warped our brains, regaining focus may seem like a tall order. But the literature of attention can offer lessons. Oliver’s Essay Collection Upstream patterns how to notice, and in Julie Otsuka’s novel swimmers, the titular characters turn to the mundane in the face of crisis, consumed by the rhythm of “blow, blow, blast”. And that of Jenny Odell How to do nothing is an essential reminder of the value of distraction, as long as it is consciously accepted rather than forced.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we continue Atlantic stories about books that share similar ideas. Do you know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward this email to them.

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What we read

Arsh Raziuddin


“At first, there was too much information to take in anything; I felt frantic, like I had just walked into a Walmart with the fanciful idea that I might get some socks, maybe a magazine, maybe a new kind of frozen burrito, and instead I was confronted with the crushing vagueness of my desires.

📚 Fake accountsby Lauren Oyler

illustration of people sticking newspapers on a wall


Does advertising ruin everything?

“The most successful industrialists of the 21st century, like Facebook and Google, harvest another commodity as abundant as wheat or crude oil. In the new industry, the fields are media and entertainment, the reapers are the advertisers, and the harvest is attention.

📚 Merchants of attentionby Tim Wu

the sky with clouds

Christopher Anderson / Magnum


“All day, people make their requests. There are so many, world, / just waiting to be noticed.

📚 “Warning”, by Leila Chatti

Mary Olivier

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

“Attention is the beginning of devotion”

“[Mary Oliver’s] final collection of essays was called Upstream. In the title track, she recalls being separated from her parents in the woods as they were walking along a stream. But what she remembers is not the trauma of being lost, but the attention she achieves in that charged moment of loneliness.

📚 Upstreamby Marie-Olivier

illustration of an eye with a swirling charging cord in the middle

Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The Great Divide in American Attention

“Recent years have seen the rise of a new mini-genre of literature: works arguing that one of the many emergencies Americans are currently experiencing is a generalized attention crisis. The books vary widely in focus and tone, but share, at their core, one essential argument: attention, that atomic unit of democracy, will shape our destiny. »

picture of a swimming pool

Zara Pfeifer / Connected Archives

The big secret of our little routines

“Life often passes without too many incidents, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth paying attention to.”

📚 swimmersby Julie Otsuka

About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she reads next is This is how you lose the time warby Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

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