We Interrupt This Broadcast…

I argued that the publishing industry might take some inspiration from books like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and media guru Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, both of which contain short chapters, as a way of helping people to fit reading better into their everyday lives.

Neither Conversational Reading nor The Reading Experience was particularly moved by my argument. Despite my caveats to the contrary, both insisted that I fell back on the “people have waning attention spans” refrain that too often gets trotted out in conversations about the alleged decline of book reading. I must not have been clear enough in my reasoning.

If we assume, as many do, that book reading is on the decline, then there are at least two ways of approaching the issue.

Option one is to imagine that people have been seduced by electronic media — lulled by television, the internet, Twitter, video games, and more into a state in which they are pathologically unable to focus and, by extension, incapable of following a book-length narrative from beginning to end.

Option two is to recognize the numerous “environmental” factors that make it extremely difficult for people to find sustained time for book reading in their everyday lives. Hence the examples from my earlier post, of leaf blowers, crying babies, etc.

Option one places all of the responsibility for not reading squarely on people’s shoulders and opens them (us?) up to moral condemnation. Why don’t people read much anymore? Because they’re obviously damaged by the electronic media!

Option two, on the other hand, is driven Terrarium by a different set of entailments. Instead of disposing us to pathologize people for not reading books, it asks us to consider what, precisely, gets in the way of reading. The assumption behind option two is that people do indeed want to read but that specific aspects of their everyday lives simply get in the way.

Clearly I prefer option two, and that’s what I had in mind in my post on The Da Vinci Code. People’s attention spans aren’t waning — or, at least, they’re not simply doing so. Instead, a host of environmental factors militates against our picking up books and sitting down with them for long, ponderous hours.

There’s a lovely example in The Late Age of Print (the book) that might illustrate what I’m getting at. In the chapter on Oprah, I discuss the surprising number of people who admitted on The Oprah Winfrey Show to reading books at stoplights while driving alone in their cars.

What can this banal example tell us? First, it shows us just how hungry people are to read. You must be desperate to do so if you break out a book for however long you’re forced to wait until the traffic light turns green. Second, it suggests that people don’t read more books in part because of the myriad everyday activities that, cumulatively, cause our free time to evaporate. Most of the stoplight readers happened to be en route to picking up children, for instance, or in the midst of running the types of errands that sustain the workaday world (grocery shopping, picking up dry cleaning, etc.)

Do these people have pathologically short attention spans? No. Is their attention divided? Absolutely. So why not begin writing books that would fit better into the world of option two? Might it not follow that people would begin consuming more books?

The other glaring issue here, of course, is economic class. Not everyone is sufficiently enfranchised to read for a protracted amount of time; doing so takes time, which costs money. The length of the average workday/week in the United States has risen steadily over the last 25 years, while real wages have fallen. Today we work longer for less.

Under these conditions, publishers and writers have a choice. Either they foment revolution and thereby free people to work shorter hours and to read more, or they adapt to the changing temporal and economic contexts within which people live.

Given the degree to which book publishing has become a bona fide capitalist enterprise, the choice seems pretty clear to me.


One comment

  1. Ryan says:

    Hi Ted. Your new book looks interesting.

    Your points about Oprah’s stop light readers are well taken. People want to read, and people are busy. However, I reckon this sort of phenomenon also speaks to our increasing obsession with activity. 60 seconds at a light is 60 seconds we *could* be doing something for. Books structured so as to take advantage of this growing penchant for activity and productivity will increase their chances of success.