A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richter is about a fatal car crash involving texting and driving, and how technology impacts our attention. It is an excellent piece of investigative journalism with many colourful details that bring the characters to life, but for a book that discusses people’s attention capacity it has many missed opportunities.
The book begins with the car collision, which gets the reader following Reggie and the widows’ journeys. Throughout the book, there are many details about the core characters that make the reader more likely to care for them.
For example, the reader learns about Reggie’s background having pre-martial sex with his girlfriend and missing out on his Mormon Mission. Also, the reader is updated on how the widows are coping, like Jackie playing World of Warcraft. These details show Richtel dug deep with his interviews.
There are recurring chapter titles, like “Reggie”, “The Neuroscientists”, and “Hunt for Justice”, which provide a sense of consistency, to an extent. However, going back and forth between the narratives is often tiring instead of exciting.
For example, from chapter ten to eleven the reader is taken from Reggie struggling between his guilt and worry about going to jail to 19th century research inspired by World War Two pilots. It’s a rocky transition that’s only slightly aided by a short paragraph describing a similar collision, which widens the scope, on page 97.
“The Neuroscientists” chapters provide historical scientific context for the struggles of the characters, mainly Reggie’s struggle with his memory of the collision. Richtel uses characters, stories, analogies, and quotes to help the reader understand the science.
For example, on page 140, “In the garage he parks a Subaru with a personalized license plate. It reads: Attend. When asked to explain, he jokes: “Because ‘Turn off your fucking cell phone’ is too long for a license plate.”.” Dr. Atchley’s license plate is amusing and intrigues the reader about his character.
However, overall the scientific explanations do run a little long. Richtel could have done more to bring the science to life, like using infographics, exercises the reader can try to test their attention capacity, or additional online content.
The historical descriptions that catch the reader up to the then current science are useful, but these days anything that discusses technology can be obsolete quite quickly. In the epilogue on page 369, Richtel addresses new technologies like Google Glass, but never mentions self-driving cars, which will likely be one of the next issues for attention versus technology.
Overall, Richtel is an excellent storyteller, using interesting details and descriptions, but some variety is the method of storytelling could have helped keep the readers attention. Also, additional online resources could have given the author the opportunity to discuss developments since 2014 like changing laws and self-driving cars.
Of course, online content would be controversial. As Dr. Watson says about Reggie’s brain on page 339, “when his brain was asked to do too much, to multitask, it became overloaded.” Could switching between a physical book and online content be considered multitasking? Probably. But, if ‘the medium is the message’, A Deadly Wandering is telling the reader to not multitask at all and just read the book, which considering our current society may already be unrealistic and idealistic.