Friday, October 26, 2018

Got 40 seconds? Good, then do I have part of a column for you!


     Forty seconds.
     Not a lot of time. I'll have to work fast. Stick with me.
     Standing in the newsroom Wednesday I did something I don't often do: study one of the big monitors hanging from the ceiling, showing how our stories are doing.  Checking on my Mega Millions column. Top 10; good, good—people love the lottery. Nodding in contentment, I let my eye wander rightward to "engagement time," how long the average reader spends absorbing this finely wrought argument.
     Forty seconds.
     Ouch. You can't read a column a 40 seconds. Most people must bail out. Looking at the other stories, I saw 40 seconds is actually a long time. One had a time of seven seconds.
     You see why. People are on their phones, flicking here and there. They're like my dog, three steps forward—SQUIRREL!—another three steps—SMELLY SPOT ON THE GROUND!
     It can take her a while to get anywhere.

     The above can be read in 40 seconds—I just did, auctioneer-style, with a stopwatch. So you distracted folks, you've put in your time. I unclip your leash. For the rest, let's continue. Ripping through the above made me think of a Woody Allen joke: "I took a speed-reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."
     Doesn't everything nowadays?
     And no, I don't take the 40 second average as an indictment of this little 719-word parcel left on your doorstep three times a week. Don't bother writing to sneeringly claim that if only I'd respect our president more, well then, readers would just sprawl before the column, sipping sweet tea, lingering indolently over what I have to say as shadows lengthen on the veranda.
     Thank you for your valuable input.
     Not that I am decrying the speed of modern life, something every writer since Seneca has done. What's the point? Technology wins. Always. It proceeds forward at its own imperative, and we lope after, changing as we go. We are not the same people who flustered in indignation at installing a telephone in our homes where complete strangers might interrupt us during the dinner hour. Those people were not smarter or kinder or better than we are—certainly not when you consider the hideous wrongs they accepted.
     The past is a terrible place. All its jaw-dropping folly was committed at a snail's past, relative to ours. Blundered into after years of careful debate. After endless speeches written in longhand, our country broke in half and started killing each other in the Civil War. Maybe it's better to be distracted: heck, half the people are reading on their phones, and if they don't look up regularly they'll blunder in front of a bus. Distraction is protective.
     I certainly distract myself. Walking somewhere without listening to an audio book seems so 20th century. Also on Wednesday I finished "Oliver Twist" on Audible—17 hours, 12 minutes. Time well spent? I'd say yes. Not because of the story. Oliver is perhaps the most inert hero in literature, buffeted through the tale like a cork in a stream, falling into the clutches of Fagin the Jew here, being rescued by good Christian folk there. He barely acts or speaks, beyond his famous request for "More."
     But Dickens' depiction of grinding London poverty is moving, a reminder that before Western society had minorities to hate, it scorned their own kind, based on wealth and social position.
     One scene resonates. Teen heroine Rose Maylie is visiting Oliver's benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, and his pal Mr. Grimwig. Learning Oliver is downstairs, Brownlow races from the room:
When the room-door closed behind him, Mr. Grimwig ... rose and limped as fast as he could up and down the room at least a dozen times, and then stopping suddenly before Rose, kissed her without the slightest preface.
     "Hush!" he said, as the young lady rose in some alarm at this unusual proceeding. "Don't be afraid. I'm old enough to be your grandfather. You're a sweet girl. I like you. Here they are!"
     That moment is never referred to again, nor does it affect Mr. Grimwig's status as a colorful crank. It was written by Dickens in the late 1830s and could have just as easily been written in the 1930s. But in 2018 it jars. That's progress.
     Thank you for your time and attention. You may go now.


  1. Generally, I end up at the Sun-Times page having read the intro here. Given that, my time on the page of the full column is reduced. Another factor might be that your audience is well-read and therefore processes text faster!

  2. I read the column in the morning which generally takes nearly 5 minutes what with looking up the meanings of words and doing a little fact checking . then I write a snotty comment , sometimes I send it. I circle back around noon to read other comments . that takes less than a minute. or if there are no new comments maybe 10 seconds . then maybe two or three other times. I've only clicked on EGD and not read the piece once and that was recently. breast milk I believe, anyway the average is brought down by the people who make multiple visits the site in one day

  3. I read "Oliver Twist" several years ago. I remember that scene, now that you brought it to mind. A Dickensian world is a always a frightening place for a child.

  4. I read your column every day in the Sun Times, from top to bottom. I don't know how long it takes but it's more than 40 seconds

  5. Interesting. So be careful how you bait the hook, you only have 40 seconds to get a bite. Sounds about right.

  6. is that check from harry Caray in the photo?


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