“Deep Reading” and the Internet

Image credit: Rock1997 | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Rock1997 | Wikimedia Commons

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 credit: Andrés Nieto Porras | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Andrés Nieto Porras | 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.

This post was re-blogged from Authors Electric.

9 thoughts on ““Deep Reading” and the Internet

  1. Wow, never saw the internet as the cause to more people reading. Thinking about it, that’s actually true. Sure, more competition in the market for writers, but more books and more readers too.

    1. Hello Jeyna, and thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I think that the internet really can act as a gateway for readers to find and enjoy books, and I hope that this will continue!

  2. As usual, a well thought out and stimulating post, Mari. Ha, Ha, I like the reference to Charles Garvice, too!

    I think this ATSD thing is hardly the fault of the web- though some aspects of it might encourage it – but all a part of what has been called The Culture of Hurry, where with the speeding up of technology people are required to do ever more in a day. I believe in call centres, people are timed according to the length of time they spend in the lav (typical of me to think of that coarse example of work pressure). People increasingly live further away from their workplaces and rush to get to them in time in high speed cars, etc..
    Convenience foods are massively popular, though ridiculously, food travels thousands of unnecessary miles.
    I remember when I first read Harlan Ellison”s ‘Repend Harlequin Said the Ticktockman’ in my teens (for once, it wasn’t during that snowed in spell when I read Georgette Heyer and Charles Garvice) I was massively impressed. Of course, it’s a story set in a dystopia where saving time has gone to ludicrous extremes- and it is horribly closer to reality today than in the era when it was written.

    I think because of this culture of hurry, readers are impatient of a slowly moving story. Recently, I’ve been reading ‘Clarissa’ by Richrdson, and I would be fascinated to know what most readers would make of such a slowly moving tale today. Richardson never uses fifty words when he can write five hundred, and long moral reflections interspace the fascinatingly evil (if improbable) machinations of the villain Lovelace.

    Richardson was of course, one of the ‘founder novelists’, and ‘Clarissa’ runs to four volumes of 250 pages eac in the Everyman edition, but I believe that it was economically expedient for late eighteenth century and Victorian novelists to write three volumes; accordingly, they did, padding it out if necessary. I do rather envy them. One reason is, that they could go in for extensive development of character; what we have to hint in a few sentences, could be shown in scene after scene. And it suited them very well, as didn’t they just love to point the moral – they’d never heard of ‘Show Not Tell’.

    I heard somewhere that in fact longer novels might be coming back into fashion, which is intriguing. But there is a form of fiction you and I both love – the novella.

    Which reminds me, Mari! Have you read ‘Dubrovsky’ yet? Love to hear your take on it!

    1. Hi Lucinda, and thanks for commenting. I should credit you as the one who introduced me to Charles Garvice. I can’t honestly say that I’ve read more than short extracts of his work, though…

      I think you’re right about the “culture of hurry”, which may owe much of its existence not just to the internet but to technology in general. Mobile phones are my pet hate – I loathe them with a passion. I don’t want people to be able to get hold of me at any time! It’s true that in the past fiction often did seem to move at a slower pace. That I spent my teenage years obsessively reading Victorian novels probably accounts for my doubts about the modern idea that pace and action are of primary importance in a narrative.

      I haven’t read Dubrovsky yet, but it is there on my to-read list!

  3. A very interesting post with plenty of food for thought, Mari. I’m firmly in the banging-head-against-desk group when it comes to those ‘successes’ you’ve mentioned. But you’re right – none of it’s cut and dried (is that the phrase I want? Looks wrong!).

    On another matter entirely, I’m reading a sci-fi/fantasy type book at the moment and there’s a character in there who keeps changing her name. At one point she’s called Byela Mar. Had to mention it!

    1. Hi Paul, and thanks for the comment. I thought you’d appreciate the reference to those books! ,-) But of course, there have always been commercially successful books, many of which are quietly forgotten as soon as fashion changes and leaves them behind, and a handful of which stand the test of time. And the success of those books at least shows that people are happy to read, which is cause for at least mild celebration…

      What’s the title of this book you’re reading? I’ve had a couple of aliases in my time…

  4. Shorter reads, like tweets or blog posts, often lead me to longer-format reads. I want to know more about the topic only tantalizingly mentioned in a tweet, or I’d like to support the author who wrote a post that really spoke to me by buying (and reading!) her books. The internet hasn’t made me less of a “deep reader,” but it has made my reading choices far more varied than they would have been otherwise.

    May the breadcrumbs of the internet lead us all to literary salvation!


    1. Hi Aniko, and thanks for commenting! I think this is true – blog posts, tweets and the like can certainly lead us to longer reads (I love the breadcrumb analogy). I think the internet has done wonderful things in widening the choices available to us!

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