At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction,” the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, in 1839. Those were the days. Browning is still right, of course: ask any reader of Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary. She sounds anachronistic only because no modern person needs advice about how to be distracted. Like typing, Googling, and driving, distraction is now a universal competency. We’re all experts.
Still, for all our expertise, distraction retains an aura of mystery. It’s hard to define: it can be internal or external, habitual or surprising, annoying or pleasurable. It’s shaped by power: where a boss sees a distracted employee, an employee sees a controlling boss. Often, it can be useful: my dentist, who used to be a ski instructor, reports that novice skiers learn better if their teachers, by talking, distract them from the fact that they are sliding down a mountain. (He’s an expert distractor in his current job, too; the last time he cleaned my teeth, he hummed all of “You Make Loving Fun,” including the guitar solo.) There are, in short, varieties of distracted experience. It’s hard to generalize about such a changeable phenomenon.