Recently there’s been quite a lot of handwringing about the internet’s effect on “deep reading”, and about the so-called “ADHD Generation”, who supposedly can’t concentrate on anything longer than a tweet or Facebook update. If that is indeed so, then it’s obviously bad news for all authors – but is it true?
There’s a sense in which it’s hard not to sympathise with this doom-laden scenario. After all, the internet makes a wealth of information available at your fingertips, and in order to process and absorb even a fraction of it you have to be slightly selective. Surfing the web entails an awful lot of grazing and skimming, not to mention a degree of online promiscuity: one leaps onto a webpage, quickly scans a few sentences, and then – if not sufficiently entranced – hotfoots it out of the virtual door and over to the next page. Hyperlinks make that process even more simple; it’s very easy to get distracted when a juicy new page is beckoning enticingly. Why, there’s even a new app, Spritz, that will kindly speed up the scanning process for your convenience!
Does this spell doom for our ability to read and concentrate? It’s early days yet, of course; the internet has only been a permanent, essential fixture in most people’s lives for the past fifteen years or so. Some are overcome with gloom as to its likely effects on reading; others, like myself, are far more sanguine. Either side could yet be proved wrong. (For obvious reasons I’m hoping that it won’t be my side.)
In fact, the book industry seems to be in pretty rude health (see here, here, and here for examples). There’s no shortage of books out there, whether they be traditionally- or self-published. Some of these do exceptionally well, commercially speaking. Those that do not can nevertheless hope to find a modest (and hopefully appreciative) audience. Besides, many of the cultural supernovas of the past years have come in the form of books – Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Grey are just some of the more obvious examples.
Of course, at this point some will be banging their heads on their desks in despair. Fifty Shades of Grey? Really? Perhaps Will Self was thinking of the success of such books when he wrote this article, in which he argued that the destiny of the “serious novel” was as a minority interest. But wasn’t it always so? Charles Garvice, mind-bogglingly prolific author of formulaic melodramas, was about the most popular novelist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, comfortably outselling his peers; his works received a critical mauling, and he has since been largely forgotten.
Of course, Fifty Shades is an outlier. But there are many other books, some of them infinitely better, that – while they can’t compete with Fifty Shades’ insane levels of success – nevertheless sell at a pretty satisfying rate. And many of them are doorstops: six or seven hundred pages of pure, undiluted prose. (Indeed, readers’ ongoing preference for these big, thick books appears to contradict the idea that they’re losing their ability to concentrate.)
There’s no doubt that books have plenty of competition these days, much of it due to the internet. There’s social networking, of course, and YouTube, and also films and music available pretty much on demand. But is this a bad thing? I’m not convinced that it is. This intense competition forces us to raise our game – not in order to mimic films and TV, but in order to do what they cannot do. For example, readers are able not just to enter, but to partially create, the fictional world of a book. Books are also, arguably, more suited to experimentation and linguistic games than other media.
I suspect that more people are reading for pleasure now than at any other time in history. And – in an interesting twist – the very internet that is frequently blamed for decreasing attention spans more than does its bit to salvage and promote literature, including those great books that stand head and shoulders above the likes of Fifty Shades. Project Gutenberg offers readers the chance to read the great classics of Western literature absolutely free of charge; so too do those teams of volunteers who lovingly convert classics into eBooks for distribution via Amazon. So on balance – and to slightly misquote Mark Twain – reports of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s still going strong, and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.
This post was re-blogged from Authors Electric.