Nobody reads with their finger any more

Posted: February 18, 2015 in reflections
Tags: , , , , ,

“Nobody reads with their finger on the page while mouthing the words anymore – how can someone *really* engage with a text if they don’t physically need to touch the words and sound them outloud?

And what’s this crap about cutting up books into tiny, short-attention span size “pages”? A book is a continuous organic medium – the only appropriate way to consume it is on a roll of vellum.”

The words above come from my friend Marios Richards, not me. But he so perfectly skewered a certain reaction to change, that I had to share it.

Not as good as vellum?

Not as good as vellum?

Google’s Tom Uglow recently gave an interesting interview in which he discussed experiments in telling stories in different ways. I think this work is fantastic, and I’d love to see where it takes us. But he also suggested that the short forms of content we read a lot of at the moment mean we aren’t reading as deeply, and that’s an idea I just can’t get behind.

There are a whole bunch of false assumptions behind that idea. It assumes that the majority of people used to read big, dense texts, rather than the short forms that have often been popular in the past, or widespread illiteracy that existed when many works of ‘great literature’ were written. It assumes that we read short texts passively, in isolation, without bringing together the different ideas presented as we would in a book. In short, it focuses on the individual text, not the reader and how they use it. And it treats that unattended reader as a passive chump.

I’ve seen far more nostalgic, patronising takes on this idea. It’s one Tom Uglow only references in passing, before moving onto the awesome innovations he’s involved in pushing. But this nostalgic view of past literary glory versus modern shallow reading is nonsense. It’s a reaction against innovation, and as Marios highlighted, it could be brought out at every stage in the development of writing.

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Comments
  1. glenatron says:

    A technological option I am becoming increasingly dependent on is having easy access to audiobooks. That is changing the way I consume books for sure, but unlike my own book reading I can’t skip a single word, so I think I am probably consuming the books far more completely in audio form than I typically do from the printed page.

    • I’m getting into e-books more myself, but hadn’t even thought about the not skipping part. I do occasionally zone out slightly, which is I guess the closest equivalent, but like you I think I might take more in that way, at least with fiction.

      I find the way people talk about e-books interesting. As a physical activity you’re listening rather than reading, but because they’re books some people still talk about ‘reading’ them, and that fits a need for a word that covers consuming books in whatever format.

  2. Steve Hartline says:

    One of the mutual draws my wife Andrea and I had when we dated was our love of reading. We both were rabid about it and one of our first dates was to a local independent book store. Why am I saying this?

    She has developed a passion for Audible and has an audio book playing constantly. In fact often times at night I’ll say something to her in bed only to realize she has her ear buds in.

    I have found that my reading has probably trebled since the popularization of eBooks; certainly so in the case of new authors. And I recently finished Steven Erickson’s 10 tome epic fantasy that is so dense it probably warp time itself.

    But I also hope that short stories are becoming fashionable again. Jim Bunting thinks so, and with ereaders that may be the case. Periodic journals should be finding a new groove as well (if they haven’t already – that’s something I am looking into now).

    The loses; public libraries and indy book stores. Maybe they can can recover as well ~ adapt or be discarded. That’s what its all about and always will be.

    • Steve Hartline says:

      my bad. Joe Bunting

    • My wife Laura’s a big fan of audiobooks too, and I’ve had that exact same experience as you – say something, look over, realise she hasn’t even heard. It also means I occasional get tangled in her headphones in the night – definitely not a problem for past generations!

      Given the way people read, I also think there’s hope for a revival of short and serialised fiction. TV has also got us used to stories in that condensed format, so perhaps this time it’ll be helping books out.

      As you say, there are losses, especially in shared public space. But libraries are adapting, and the damage ebooks and Amazon have done to big chains means there’s signs of a revival among indie stores. I think if those spaces can find a way to pay the bills while providing the distinctive services they give communities then it’ll work out, and I have high hopes.

  3. […] came up in a discussion with fellow speculative fiction author Rita de Heer about one of my previous posts. As Rita pointed out, the way we take in stories changes the experience. An audiobook gives you […]

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