Editor’s Note: You can watch Ann Patchett read her essay on the PBS NewsHour on Monday night.
In my 30s, I decided to get serious about baking. I bought cookbooks and went to work. It was shocking how often my attempts failed. My cakes were flat, dry, sunken, flavorless, you name it. After taking careful inventory of my equipment and ingredients, I was forced to call myself into question: Was I reading the recipe carefully? Was I following directions? Not exactly. I’d done most of what was required, but never all of it. So I baked a cake while paying full attention to nothing but the cake, and it came out perfectly. It looked like the cake in the book.
Baking turned out to be a lesson in what we used to call reading comprehension. I hadn’t been paying attention to the text, which might have been because I was talking on the phone while folding the wet and dry ingredients, or I was folding the laundry while running the mixer, or making a note to myself in the margins of the cookbook to write a piece about cakes. Behold, the confidence it takes to glance at a recipe from the corner of one eye and think it will all turn out fine.
Or behold the confidence it takes to drive a car while sending a text message. Though if you’re going to try and fail at multitasking, it’s better do it in the kitchen than on the interstate.
People like to ask me the secret to writing novels. For me, it’s the ability to stay focused. Admitting that I’m incapable of multitasking was an important first step. In order to write a novel, I have to show up to work fully present and concentrate on one thing. It turns out this is also the secret to baking a cake, and being in a successful relationship, and being a good parent, and a good friend.
If your attention span has shrunken like a sweater accidentally thrown in the dryer and you want to stretch it out again, then reading a book can serve the same purpose as writing one. Like baking, reading books can be the antidote to fragmentation and distraction. Chapter by chapter you can retrain yourself to pay attention for longer periods of time. Books are also a great source of entertainment, education, and empathy. They’re available for free at your local library, and are for sale at your local independent bookstore for a fraction of the cost of a new iPhone.
I was told this essay should be three minutes long — that three minutes is the length of time people would pay attention. So read some more books and next time we’ll talk longer.