Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century (235 BC to late 3rd century AD)
Tim Parks, writing at New York Review of Books, offers some thoughts on why reading books has become so difficult in the digital age:
What I’m talking about is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it on numerous occasions over what could be days, weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels and indeed the larger world.
We all know this. Some have greater resistance, some less. Only yesterday a smart young Ph.D. student told me his supreme goal was to keep himself from checking his email more than once an hour, though he doubted he would achieve such iron discipline in the near future. At present it was more like every five to ten minutes. So when we read there are more breaks, ever more frequent stops and restarts, more input from elsewhere, fewer refuges where the mind can settle. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption. Hence more and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book, particularly something long and complex.
My own experience with books today, as an author, is mixed. I have published with a small publisher (Faith@Science, J. Gordon Shillingford), a medium one (By Design or by Chance?, Augsburg Fortress), and a big one (The Spiritual Brain, HarperCollins). The books were appreciated, and some won writers’ association awards.
But when it came to marketing them in bookstores as part of an authors’ group, I sensed that something was wrong. Ominously so. People were buying our books for their nephews or their pastors or whoever else they thought “ought to” read them. They themselves were “too busy” to read books. In conversation, it came out that the customers themselves mostly read online media. And so, one suspects, did a large proportion of the people they were buying the books for. One clergyman protested, “The last thing your pastor needs is another book to read!”
Then, a few years ago, I started writing a fourth book. This one was about the way some areas of science seem so driven by materialism that, even in the face of constant, routine failure, researchers simply cannot re-examine their assumptions. The book collapsed before publication, for a variety of reasons.
But it reappeared shortly after as a series of online columns called Science Fictions. It provided the same material in chapter order (but in much smaller installments). The endnotes are all embedded, so if a reader wishes to check out a reference, it is only a click away. There is also a handy precis of the instalments of the chapters published to date, on cosmology, origin of life, and human evolution. If nephews and pastors want to read Science Fictions, they can just go and read it for free, choosing their own order; everything is interlinked. The traffic has been quite satisfactory.
Maybe this new approach to publishing is a bad thing in the long run. And it could be the beginning of something pretty far out (see the vid). But it obviates so many perennial headaches that I would not willingly go back to print.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.