"Deep Reading" and the Internet - Mari Biella

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.)

Image c/o Andrés Nieto Porras, via Wikimedia Commons

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.


Chris Longmuir said…
I don't think the print book will ever die. I think, however, there may be a shift in what people buy in print form as many of them move to ereading. One publisher I heard talk considered that the hardback will be the the form that will increase in sales with the paperback falling behind a little. One thing for sure though, is that the rise of ebooks and ereaders has made a big impact on the market. However, I believe that ebooks have attracted a whole new class of readers who may never have considered print books at all. So there are no lost sales there. Some readers of print books will have made the shift, and there are some who never will. But, there are also readers who buy both print and ebooks, sometimes the same book. So I don't believe books are dead. However, a word of caution when looking at stats of sales of both formats. Stats are compiled from Bowker listings in the US and Nielsen in the UK. This means that only the books and ebooks with ISBNs will be included in these stats, and the majority of indie self-published ebooks do not have ISBNs because Amazon does not require them for their kindle books. This means that these books are not included in the stats and if they were it would show a vastly different picture, and I suspect it would be slewed towards ebooks being in the lead.
Chris is right about the 'official' stats being skewed towards the traditional publishing model. Also, I find that more people are prepared to buy the eBook where before they would have passed a paperback around six or seven people. I also think Mari is right - people are still prepared to read great big doorstops if it's in a genre or more particularly by an author they like. (Me, with China Mieville's vast volumes, for instance!) It also struck me, reading this very good and thoughtful piece of analysis (for which thanks, Mari) that people doing academic research quite often skim read. There will be texts you read fully, but also a great many books, papers and now online material where you learn the skill of skimming through and dipping into and out of the work to find what you want. So I don't think it's that people have lost the art of deep reading, so much as that a whole lot more - and certainly younger - people have acquired the art of what some people were already doing. I certainly read quickly, but if it's a book I love, I read the whole thing and become immersed in that world. If I'm researching something though - a lot of which I do online these days - I dip in and out of books and websites, scroll down, maybe even copy and paste passages or at least bookmark them. It involves intense concentration, but not necessarily deep reading of the whole thing.
Dennis Hamley said…
There's so much in this meaty post, Mari, and so much in the comments of Chris and Catherine that one hardly knows where to start. Sometimes I do agree that the very concept of concentration has been conjured out of us by the new media. And then I see so many children, from 10 upwards, who a few years ago happily got through the 6-700 pages JK Rowling threw at them. The tendency in young adult books seems to be 400+ pages and I presume they sell because there's little or no diminution in the numbers, even though reviewers, when given a number of books to choose from to review, do what I did and use weight as the first criterion for putting books aside unread.

But I do agree with Catherine about the different levels of reading. There are books to skim, books to read carefully but quickly and books - or more often passages in books - to pore over and wonder at. And yes, the internet is great for snippety research. But it never seems as valid as a week in the BL.
I used to come home with my head spinning with words and new knowledge and ideas. Now, I just look it up, use it and then forget it. Perhaps that's just age.
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for your comments everyone.

Chris – yes, it will be interesting to see what happens re print books and ebooks. I agree that ebooks have attracted just as many – possibly more – readers than they have alienated. Interesting point about how stats are collected, too. It never occurred to me that sales stats took into account only those books with ISBNs. I expect that does skew the figures a bit!

Catherine – thanks for the compliment! I agree that people read in different ways depending on what they’re reading, and why (I have to admit, this is not something that occurred to me when I was writing the post). On reflection, though, I’m pretty sure that we read novels and internet pages, for example, in quite different ways.

Dennis – many of the teachers I work with on a daily basis do seem to think that kids are losing the ability to concentrate. I’ve little to compare the youngsters of today with, though when I think back to my own peers at school I’m not sure that there’s been any marked decline in either reading habits or concentration. I can only comment on the little I’ve experienced, though, which is really only a tiny (and probably unrepresentative) sample!
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes a thought-provoking post Mari. I think people are reading more than ever, let's not forget how much reading people do on their phones and tablets as they move about. Important info from Chris there about the stats too. As for concentration, it may be that multi-tasking is more useful nowadays than sustained concentration, for most people, and that they can learn concentration when it's needed, hard to say. In early 19th century, people who finished school at quite early ages could write wonderful English and hugely long letters - but the subjects and skills they had learned were much more narrow than now.

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