Our ability to pay attention isn’t what it once was. We’ve let that muscle go flaccid. Readers now of glowing screens, we click from one page to another, following link upon link, not bothering to finish whatever it was we started. As writers, too, we’ve learned not to exert ourselves by providing details if we can link to another text that will give them for us. Even this small review, in its electronic version, offers portals to usher you elsewhere.
And so we’ve trained our brains to fidget and flit. It’s lucky for us, then, that Robert Hass’s superb collection of critical essays, “What Light Can Do,” is not tricked out with links, even in e-book format. Hass, the former US poet laureate, writes so tantalizingly and draws on so vast a range of knowledge that our impulse, mid-essay, is to dash off immediately and read, or reread, whichever book or poem or writer he’s just touched on, or gaze at more pictures by the photographers he admires, or soak up some of the considerable political history he has absorbed. Yet one also wants to remain rooted, listening to Hass’s voice. That is the desire to heed. Later, you can do the rest.