The problem of sustained reading in a distracted society

February 3, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

This past weekend, yr. humble correspondent finished reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. The endeavour took approximately 30 days to complete. While a novel of 1,072 pages is by no means a minor undertaking, 30 days to read a single book seems – to an inveterate reader such as myself – excessive. True, I completed two other, shorter books for review in the interim, but for the most part, my reading time in the month of January was devoted to a single book.

One reason for this is that I read the book in snippets – short gulps here and there whenever I could fit them in – rather than setting aside blocks of time to read, say, 100 pages or so. True, I have a day job that cuts into my reading time, and it’s clearly important to maintain a life outside the confines of a book’s covers, lest one become a kind of anti-social hermit. Still, it’s not as though my life is so back-breakingly full that I couldn’t find a quiet hour or two for sustained reading each day. Indeed, if I were to add up all the time spent staring at various screens in the month of January, the total would probably have been sufficient to allow me to finish a book of 1,000+ pages in 10 days or so.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time, not so long ago, when blocks of several hours per day could easily be found to read for pleasure. What has changed? In a word: distraction. The Internet, social media, reality television, and 24-hour-a-day celebrity culture have increased easy access to all manner of distraction, and distraction is anathema to sustained reading. Reading requires concentration and active engagement, qualities that are in short supply in today’s hyperlinked, attention-deficit society.

Alan Bissett, writing on the Guardian‘s Books Blog (yes, I recognize the irony), makes the same point, and extends it to include a value judgment:

So besieged are we by the entertainment industry that we are being stimulated only in certain directions. The sound of fizz is everywhere. Sustained concentration on the printed word, whether in-depth argument or fictional narrative, creates a particular cerebral event which visual-dependent media cannot. The assault upon this has meant the very theft of our thinking space.

This argument has been made before, notably in a 2008 article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Carr points out that although we are engaging with the written word more than ever before, the way we are doing so is changing:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking – perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

This is no small matter. Skimming an online news article for tidbits of information or the next interesting hyperlink on which to click does little to develop the kind of complex thinking skills that are necessary to engage in a sustained analysis or argument, nor does it allow for an acceptance of ambiguity or nuance.

Jakob Nielson, an influential figure in “web usability,” provides statistics to support this shift in the way people read online: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word by word.” All of which might be fine in an online environment, but the same kind of reading habits have begun to bleed into our offline lives. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t picked up the print edition of The Globe and Mail recently. If you had, you’d surely have noticed that the news articles are getting shorter, and are frequently displaced by verbal graphics, “charticles,” and bulleted lists. All perfect fodder for people who want their information provided to them quickly and cleanly, without requiring the reader to chew over intricate concepts or bedeviling subject matter.

Neil Postman was certainly ahead of his time when, in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he surveyed the media landscape and noticed the deleterious effect that television was having on our political culture. It was a brilliant time-waster, to be sure, but Postman also realized that the ubiquitous home entertainment device was destroying rational argument and civic awareness. In his foreword, he juxtaposes the visions of two authors, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Huxley – who, while nailing our “almost infinite appetite for distractions,” could hardly have foreseen American Idol, Twitter, or Perez Hilton – was also far ahead of his time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read a book.

Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction

November 3, 2009 by · 7 Comments 

It isn’t the readers’ or the writers’ fault that publishing has fallen on its own sword and allowed book shop chains and short-term thinking to eat its heart away. It isn’t our fault that the Net Book Agreement disappeared (although we should have fought harder to keep it). But we are the ones who’ll lose out, who don’t get the variety of books, who don’t find the unlooked-for pleasures or get to share the new dreams. The appetite for them is still out there. With each generation of poor schooling it’ll be diminished – we’ll be less and less able to understand what we don’t have – but, for now, the part of my job which is consistently inspiring involves seeing and feeling the energy of readers, meeting that immense enthusiasm for wonders – in all kinds of people in all kinds of situations – Ilkley, Ely, Toronto … it doesn’t seem to matter where. If that energy and intelligence steps up to the next level of organisation, there could be hope for us. And I need never go on another TV or radio show and find that, however the discussion was described beforehand, what we’re really meant to talk about is how poetry is dead, or the novel is rubbish, or the short story is irrelevant. Fuck that, quite frankly. Really. Fuck that with vigour and from a strange direction. It truly leaves me more than annoyed.

– A.L. Kennedy in the Guardian

The sombreness of the long-distance reader

October 21, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

In her book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Mikita Brottman points to all the various campaigns that have been launched recently to make reading appear fun, then asks why, if reading is so much fun to begin with, people have to work so hard and spend so much money to promote its pleasures to a reluctant public. In North America, publishers, libraries, and governments invest much time and effort (not to mention dollars) on campaigns with names like “Get Caught Reading,” “Live with Books,” and “Books Change Lives.” Each year, the CBC holds an annual week-long “battle of the books” – Canada Reads – which pits five works of CanLit in a Survivor-style elimination contest featuring celebrity panellists. And Scotiabank Giller Prize founder Jack Rabinovitch repeatedly reiterates that for the price of a dinner in Toronto, readers can buy all five Giller shortlisted books. Pace Brottman, the juries have all spoken, and they are unanimous: reading is an enjoyable, enlightening, and engrossing activity.

So why do I feel so depressed at the moment?

I have now finished two of the five books shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, and am well into a third. (Relax: roundups are coming.) And my verdict at the midway point is as dispiriting as it is surprising: I don’t want to read any more. Not these books, nor anything else. The first three Giller contenders have managed to do something I never would have thought possible: robbed me of my delight in reading.

It’s not that the three books (okay, two and a half) I’ve read so far are badly written, or devoid of interest on the level of technique or story. But they all have one thing in common: whether it’s Linden MacIntyre’s sombre meditation on the horrors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kim Echlin’s painful recapitulation of the Cambodian genocide, or Annabel Lyon’s ardent history lessons about life in ancient Macedon, the first three Giller contenders are defiantly serious, ponderous books about weighty subjects and heavy themes. And they are all devoid of one signal quality: joy.

Now, you will argue that sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are not joyful subjects, and you would be absolutely right. However, I am reminded of John Updike’s comment about Nabokov: he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” Nabokov, no doubt, treated some very dark subject matter in his fiction, but that never prevented him from delighting in the ecstasy of writing, which in turn bled over into the ecstasy of reading.

The enduring writers of the 19th and 20th centuries – Dostoevesky, Woolf, Beckett, O’Connor, Greene, Faulkner, Chekhov, and Joyce among them – all dealt with weighty subjects and posed difficult moral questions, but no matter how depressing their themes became, the experience of reading them was never itself depressing. In a similar vein, 21st century international writers like Saramago, Houellebecq, Murakami, Bolaño, and McCarthy have traced our modern, technologically obsessed malaise in a climate of post-9/11 anomic alienation without themselves becoming forces of alienation. The same cannot be said of the current Giller crop, at least three of which are sober, earnest, and seem intent on proving their literary and intellectual worth at the expense of a reader’s engagement.

What is a reader, looking for the highest achievement in Canadian writing and handed The Bishop’s Man, The Disappeared, and The Golden Mean, to do? Each book has merits, to be sure, but the cumulative effect of reading them is to inculcate the idea that our prestige fiction is portentous, plodding, and grim, filled with dirt and grime and death, and devoid of the vigour and verve that makes the best writing come alive. Any one of these books on its own might be tolerable. Together, they have put me off reading.

A blogger’s disclosure: I have received free books

October 5, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

When I sit at my desk in the Quill & Quire offices, I am surrounded by books. Dozens upon dozens of books. All of them have been sent to me by publishers for review consideration. When I sit at the desk in my home office, I am also surrounded by books. Dozens, even hundreds, of books. Many of these I have purchased with my own cash money, which I earn at my day job. Some, however, have been sent to me (either at my request or on spec by a publisher’s representative or directly from an author) in the hope that I will mention them on my blog. Sometimes I do. Many times I don’t. But in practice I have never disclosed a book’s provenance if I decide to review it or to profile the author in this forum.

I mention all of this because new guidelines from the American Federal Trade Commission, which go into effect on December 1, 2009, will require all (U.S.) bloggers to disclose whether they received compensation – either monetary or “in-kind” – to review a product or service. From the FTC press release:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

In other words, if yr. humble correspondent receives a book from a publisher (or directly from an author) that I then review (positively) on my blog (and assuming for the moment my hypothetical U.S. citizenship), the FTC regulations would require me to tell my readers that I received the book for free. If I failed to do so, I could be liable for fines of up to $11,000 (U.S.).

This seems absurd on its face. First off, the conflation of bloggers and “‘word-of-mouth’ marketers” is at the very minimum suspect when it comes to book reviewing. Believe it or not, when I review a book on this site (or anywhere else for that matter), I’m not acting on behalf of a publisher’s marketing department. I’m performing the job of a critic. Although review attention does provide the kind of exposure that publishers are constantly hankering after, reviewers are not in the business of promoting books or authors, and most media organs have explicit conflict-of-interest guidelines to prevent reviewers who may have a hidden agenda or lack objectivity from reviewing books that they are too closely connected to. Notwithstanding the FTC’s overly simplistic wording, book reviews are not “endorsements,” but rather critical assessments.

Book reviewers have always received free copies of the books they review. A review editor (me, for example) contacts a freelancer and asks if that person would review the new Margaret Atwood novel. The reviewer agrees, and the editor sends a copy of the book (or an advance reading copy), which has been supplied (free of charge) by the publisher, to the reviewer, who retains the product after writing the review. This has always been considered acceptable practice, and the transaction is generally understood by readers of book reviews. However, under the new FTC guidelines, if a book blogger behaves in a similar fashion, that blogger must disclose the provenance of the book under review.

What’s the difference between a newspaper or magazine reviewer and a book blogger? According to Richard Cleland of the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Protection, who spoke with book blogger Ed Champion, the difference is that in the case of a newspaper reviewer, the book remains the property of the newspaper, and the reviewer returns it upon completing the review:

“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”

This is, in a word, horseshit. When a freelancer reviews a book for any newspaper or magazine of which I’m aware, the reviewer retains the book. When Champion asked how a book blogger might avoid the appearance of conflict, Cleland responded that the blogger could return the book after writing the review:

“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?

“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”

Cleland also told Champion that when a publisher sends out a free copy of a book for review, it is in the expectation of a positive notice. This, too, is utter horseshit. Publishers send out review copies in the hope of gaining any kind of attention at all: I have never encountered a situation where a publisher insists on positive reviews of books they provide (and, indeed, would immediately sever ties with any publisher who made such a bizarre stipulation). “If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.” I couldn’t agree more. The only problem being that there is no such expectation.

In the last few years, publishers have been shifting their focus away from traditional media outlets (newspapers and magazines), which are routinely curtailing their book coverage (if not eliminating it altogether), and targeting the people who are still paying attention to books: bloggers and other online writers. From a publishing perspective this only makes sense: faced with limited resources for promotion, you send your books where they have the best chance of getting coverage. Does this mean that publishers and bloggers are somehow in collusion with one another? Absolutely not.

I have given both positive and negative reviews to books I’ve purchased myself, and I’ve done the same with books I’ve been sent by publishers. My opinion has never been, is not now, and never will be for sale. If the new FTC regulations gain traction, however, and similar Canadian legislation is contemplated, let’s assume for the purposes of this blog that I get all my books for free. That’s my blanket declaration. You are welcome to take everything I write in these pages with as much or as little salt as you see fit. It just seems simpler that way.

Reading as stress relief

July 30, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Marie Claire U.K.:

Reading is the best way to relax and even six minutes can be enough to reduce the stress levels by more than two thirds or 68%.

New research by consultancy Mindlab International at the University of Sussex says reading works better and faster than other methods to calm frazzled nerves such as listening to music, going for a walk or settling down with a cup of tea.

Which is so funny, because I could swear that reading The Da Vinci Code and Kiss the Girls actually increased my stress level. Go figure.