A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are academics, and mostly academics who specialize in 18th-century British literature. These are highly qualified and credentialed people, well educated, most of them with PhD’s, and who not only teach and research, but also do service work for their universities (serving on committees) or administrative work (serving as the head of their department). It’s been fascinating to hear many of them say that they just can’t concentrate to read as much as they used to. And these are not just cases where they’ve had to cut back from, say, three hours a day to two, but they just can’t sit for 15 minutes to read anything academic.

Part of it is that their usual busyness continues at the same time as the pandemic does, which means they often have to teach via Zoom, a technology to get comfortable with but more importantly a pedagogy to learn. If you’re used to standing at the front of a class of students — you know, in a classroom, the students in seats, and the professor at the front talking and leading and prodding for questions — then having to flip to looking at a Zoom screen, some of the gameshow-like blocks showing your students, some of them black with just the student’s name — well, that must be a challenge, especially when it had to be adapted to pretty quickly. All that takes more time that they otherwise might devote to reading.

But in many of the cases when these profs talk about not being able to read, they are not just talking about time management. I don’t know quite what it is, and I think most of them don’t either, but I interpret it as the body-pervasive angst about the future — is this pandemic going to kill us all? am I going to be teaching like this for another two terms? am I being successful in actually teaching my students? — which must continually distract you from calmly sitting in your favourite chair and blithely and happily flipping through a favourite novel or academic journal. It reminds me of a passage from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, where he explains the seeming contradiction that people out of work and so with lots of free time on their hands don’t actually take advantage of that to produce more writing than they used to:

Once or twice it has happened to me to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability; there are others whom I haven’t met but whose work I occasionally see in the magazines. Now and again, at long intervals, these men will produce an article or a short story which is quite obviously better than most of the stuff that gets whooped up by the blurb-reviewers. Why, then, do they make so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why don’t they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude — and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home — you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.

I’ve experienced the same thing (both in reading and in writing), at the same time that if feels like my attention span is shrinking as well. Pretty soon I may be able to read the best-before date on my almond milk and that will be it for the day.

But I do try to persist. I happen also to be doing some freelance editing, and over the past couple of months that has required reading (among others) a 400-page novel and an 800-page manual about vocational evaluation. I finished them both, was told by my clients that I’d done a good job, but sometimes I wonder how I managed it. Work on my biography of Sam Johnson has declined. It will sound a little lame to say that I have been thinking about the book regularly, and I have sat down occasionally in the last month or two to work on it, but I haven’t given it the hours and days of attention that it still needs. I’m still confident that I will finish it, and that it will be the best that my skills and limitations can make it, but, time being the inexorable dimension that it is, My Sam Johnson will be finished later than I wanted and anticipated.

I’ve just had a look at the book in process, and here are some stats about it:

  • It is 48,226 words long so far.
  • Of those, about 21,500 are fully written and will require little revision. My method is to write the sentences in what I consider to be the “final form” as I go, so I know that there is likely not a lot of cutting and rewriting to do afterwards.
  • The other 27,000 or so words are the results of research and selection I have done for the content of the book. I have it all arranged in the chapter in which I think it will appear, and so I simply need to write it.
  • I’ve also started to compile the photographs which will accompany the book. I’ve posted those here on the book’s website. They are my own original photos, taken during a few trips to England when I was making a point of getting images related to Johnson. At the bottom of that page you will also see some interpretations of a couple of paintings by Joshua Reynolds that I commissioned from some artists. I really like the range of those.

One of the sources of information (secondary sources) for the book is a series of interviews I did with various (mostly) scholars about aspects of Johnson and of life in the 18th century. I’ve done about 20 of those, some in person, most by telephone, and a few by email. I think I have enough of those and likely won’t be doing any or many more. I’m very grateful for the scholars who gave up their time (and knowledge) for me. And they were fun, too.

And so that’s where I am. To tell the truth, I really had hoped to be further along, but being close to half finished is not that bad. I have a vision for how I want this book to be, how I want the writing to be, especially since it is not aimed at scholars but at a general readership. It needs to be authoritative in the sense that the facts and research are accurate — I am being very careful about that — but it also has to be written in a lighter style, not overburdened with minutiae but also not shallow. This past month and more have been a long break from it, and I’m looking forward to getting back at it.

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