by Jillian Casey
Although it is a bit cliché, on my bookshelf, I have a well-worn copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the novel has been read so many times that it practically falls open to the page where Elizabeth Bennet cleverly refuses Mr. Darcy’s first proposal.
However, this action becomes impossible when reading beloved stories in electronic form.
“The world of the physical book, read so many times that your imagination can ‘inhabit’ individual pages, is dying,” said Paul Mason in an article for The Guardian. “Even the most cherished books…are now reread on Kindle.”
Very few people, even stringent advocates for physical books, can deny the charm of eBooks, particularly the ability to carry a sizeable library on a single device.
“But what is the eBook doing to the way we read?” Mason asked. “And how, in turn, are the changes in the way millions of us read going to affect the way novelists write?”
To answer this question, linguist Naomi Baron reported a change in reading patterns. In her book, Words OnScreen, published this year, she noted an increased penchant for summarizing. “We read webpages in an ‘F’ pattern: the top line, scroll down a bit, have another read, scroll down.”
In other words, readers have shorter attention spans, not just because the text is digital, but because they are reading on cellphones and tablets, devices with multiple purposes.
“Baron reports that a large percentage of young people read on their cellphones—dipping into [books] in the coffee [line] or on public transportation, but then checking their work email or their online love life, a swipe away,” said Mason.
Such realities have been met with criticism in the literary world, with authors and academics alike blaming the desire for a good story with “unfussy writing” for devaluing writing as a piece of art.
“What I think the literary academics are worried about is the loss of immersiveness,” said Mason. “Pre-digital people had a single self…[that]…they hauled…through the pages of the literary cannon. Digital people have multiple selves, and so what they are doing with an immersive story is more provisional and temporary.”
Not so long ago, when a person picked up a book, he or she dedicated their entire self to the story—the vivid characters, the rich setting, and the intricate background story. There was more to the story than its readability, than its entertainment value. A person read a book like looking at art in a museum—it was academic as well as entertaining.
I’m talking about the kind of reading you did in your AP Literature classes in high school. I still have scars from Portrait of a Lady.
These changes in the way we read translate into the way authors have to write. Mason predicts three kinds of writing that have emerged in this digital age.
“First, literary novels, with clearer plots than their twentieth century predecessors, less complex prose, fewer experiments with fragmented perception.
“Second, popular novels, with a high degree of writerly craft, making the edges of the first two categories hard to define.
“Third, literary writing about reality—the confessional autobiography, the diary of a journalist, highly embroiled reportage about a legendary event.”
What’s the difference? Once upon a time, people read novels because their own lives paled in comparison to the lives beloved characters were living. They were filled with adventure and intrigue, love and friendship, sometimes magic or time travel, themes and experiences that were “more exhilarating than anything in the reality around [them], which [may have been] stultifying, parochial and enclosed.”
Any author writing a story in this day and age is doing so with the knowledge that he or she is competing for the readers’ attention with video games and movies, with Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. It isn’t that reading has become less immersive, in fact readers are able to interact with their favorite stories in new and ever-changing ways, even if their copy of Pride and Prejudice lives on a Kindle instead of a bookshelf.
“Life itself has become more immersive,” Mason said. “That is what writers are really up against.”
Mason, Paul. “Ebooks Are Changing the Way We Read, and the Way Novelists Write.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 10 August 2015. Web. 27 August 2015.
Guest post contributed by Jillian Casey at the Blooming Twig. The Blooming Twig is an independent, boutique publishing house that supports the adventurous tastes of its readership.
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