Sunday, November 22, 2009

Paying Attention

View of the Kaag--Willem-Bastiaan-Tholen-1860-1931 I’m not sure I’ve ever been great at paying attention to the world around me. It has to be pretty spectacular for me to notice it.

When I was a college freshman, I headed off to an afternoon class, “Media and Society,” one fall day. After walking across campus and into the library, I saw a note on the door saying that class had been canceled. Hmm.

As I walked back toward my dorm, a security man drove up to me in a golf cart. He was an older, big man, and I remember how red his face was. “What the hell are you doing out here?”

I gaped at him. “Well, I’m trying to get to class. But it’s canceled.”

“Well it sure as hell is! Hurricane Hugo is coming through, young lady! Why do you think the campus is deserted? Do you hear that siren? And look at that sky. Do you think that’s normal?”

Oh. No, I didn’t think it was normal, now that he mentioned it. And the campus was sort of oddly deserted….like that movie The Day After. The siren? I don’t know what I thought that was all about. The outraged security guy dragged me into his golf cart and deposited me at my dorm with stern warnings. Everyone in my dorm had gathered into the commons area to watch the TV….a fact I’d been blissfully unaware of when I’d left my dorm room and trotted off to the canceled class.

Sometimes I don’t pay attention to minor details.

I skip over details when reading, too. I want to get to the main thrust of the story. Ordinarily, tedious setting descriptions, love scenes, and boring bits get a pass over from me.

What I do pay attention to as a reader:

First off: who is the protagonist? I want to know right off the bat who I need to pay most attention to.

Subtle clues to the season, time of day, and general location. Are people wearing sweaters? Coats? Sleeveless tops? Are leaves turning? Are crocuses blooming? Are the characters’ shadows stretching out on the pavement in front of them? I think I pay more attention to setting clues than if the writer comes right out and lays out the information for me.

What year is it? Am I reading something set in the present day? A retro piece? I read a book recently that dealt with World War II. But for the longest time, I couldn’t ascertain if the war was still ongoing, or set in its aftermath. I ignored everything else in the book until I tracked down that bit of information.

I want more details about the setting if I’m reading a tense scene between protagonist and antagonist. Can the protagonist escape? Is there anyone within earshot?

Who are important secondary characters? Which names do I need to learn and which are just bit players I don’t have to remember later?

What is the relationship between different characters? Friends? Lovers? Family? I may even need an additional reminder of their connection later on.

If you sometimes skim as a reader, are there parts that you’re actively looking for? Are there parts you always want to pay attention to or that you flip back in a book to find?