Reading behaviours have changed over the last twenty or thirty years, at least in parts of the world where the digital age has arrived. Almost all of us read a great deal on-screen, and we spend a certain amount of our day reading material on websites. New research at the University of California, San Diego suggests that the average person today consumes nearly three times as much info as in 1960. According to The New York Times recently, "the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour."
We quickly become better at scanning headlines to decide what we want, and we skip and flit about, gathering snippets of info and processing it very quickly. Our brains change to reflect new skills. Gary Small's fascinating book, iBrain, is based partly on research on a group of people who had never used the internet before, alongside a control group. The study suggested - and this is backed up by other research into time taken to rewire neural connections - that after only five hours' practice, the brain of an internet beginner has changed, measurably, to reflect new skills and experience. And more practice or use produces more change, apparently.
(For more on the science of this, I recommend iBrain, and The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr.) But for now I want to talk anecdote, not science. I want to ask you if your experience matches mine.
Maybe five years ago, I was about to start writing The Highwayman's Footsteps. I wanted it to be "rip-roaring adventure", thrilling historical drama, just like one of my favourite books as a teenager, The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I remembered that The Black Tulip had lots of gore and high tension and a very fast-paced story.
So, I took it from my shelf to re-read it, for the first time since I'd been a teenager. Well, I wasn't wrong about the gore. (Who says modern YA fiction is shocking? Blimey!) High tension? Well, maybe, but you had to read a LOT of words first and unpick reams of long paragraphs and complex sentences. It's turgid prose, with masses of subordinate clauses. The opening paragraph consists of a single sentence of 148 words.
Reader, I couldn't read it. Seriously.
So, what has happened in the intervening years? How did I turn from a teenager who could lap that up to an adult who couldn't keep her eyes on the page? But forget me - what about you? I'm guessing I'm not the only reader whose reading habits have changed. And it can't be to do with age, because surely a teenager would have if anything a greater need for pace than a middle-aged person? Are we just too busy nowadays to read slowly? Have we been subconsciously demanding faster books / simpler sentences over the last thirty years, so that now page-turnability is compulsory, whereas before (?) it wasn't? Has our definition of page-turnability changed?
If our reading habits, needs and tastes have changed, science tells us our brains have, too. There's nothing much we can do about this, although each of us in theory controls the mouse on our own computers. Besides, I'm not even saying that in terms of reading habits this is a bad change. (In terms of the arguments that people like Gary Small and many others are introducing regarding empathy and wisdom, that's a different matter.)
I'm just interested:
- Do you find it harder to concentrate on longer, denser texts than you used to?
- Have you had any Black Tulip examples, where you've tried reading something you once loved and then wondered what on earth has happened to your brain in the meantime?
- What might it mean for us as writers? Publishers say people want shorter, snappier reading material - are they right?
- Do you think it matters? Are you worried about any of this?
Right, I'm off. Things to do, people to meet, tweets to tweet, info to process, websites to scan...