Tuesday, 21 September 2010

How Has Reading Changed? by Nicola Morgan

Everything we do changes our brains. So, if there's something we are doing differently now, compared with how we did it previously, our brains will be changing or have changed to reflect that. If readers' brains are changing and if reading behaviours are changing, surely this will matter for writers?

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?
Answers in a comment. Oh, and keep it snappy - no one will read it otherwise.

Right, I'm off. Things to do, people to meet, tweets to tweet, info to process, websites to scan...


hilary said...

Fascinating, had noticed, didn't realise it had been scientifically proven.
Have found myself skim reading old friends with a bit of irritation notably Dickens, George Eliot.
Have also noticed the effect is reversible and the brain relaxes and begins old fashioned reading again during a long internet free break.
Don't think it matters much, and may well be a good thing: the sooner HMRevenue & Customs employ a few iBrains the better (imo).
Have kept reply as snappy as poss.

Nicky said...

I found that with 'Eagle of the Ninth' - which I adored as a kid. My son couldn't get into it at all and when I reread it I could see why. It is comparatively slow. As a rule of thumb something horrible happens in my books every five pages and probably every fifty in RS.

karen ball said...

I've re-read cherished novels years later and been sorely disappointed, but I've put that down to a novel speaking to me at a particular time of life because it was mirroring my experiences. On re-reading I didn't have the same emotional needs. Other favourite novels have more than stood up to the test of time.

Mum was telling me a story this morning and I started giving her the 'Get on with it' sign and she said, 'Oh, you just can't concentrate on a story properly these days.' Interesting!

karen ball said...

Oh, and do publishers want shorter, snappier reading material? The slim YA novel is a rare sight these days, unless your author profile is strong enough for you to say that the story is just as long or short as it needs to be.

adele said...

I had a terrible let down when I went back to Enid Blyton's Malory Towers books which I loved as a child. It was very thin stuff indeed and I realized that children often supply a good deal of the book they're reading themselves, out of their own imaginations. I'm a bit scared to re read Mazo de la Roche but I intend to (thanks, Hilary...I'll tell you when the borrowing will begin quite soon!) and hope they stand up a bit better. But in general I'm not a great rereader of books because I always want the next thing....

Nicola Morgan said...

Karen - interesting and I think you're also right about things speaking to us at particular times of life. I do think we're in a huge rush these days, though. Re slim YA novels - ah, I don't think it's about length but snappiness. You can have a long novel with terrific narrative drive and pace. I think that's what we're being asked to provide.

Adele - I also don't re-read often. And after my experience, I don't think I will!

Katherine Langrish said...

I re-read all the time. New stuff as well, of course, but I do re-read, and would even say that for me the only really successful book is one that I need to re-read because it has more to give me each time.

I agree about the difference of pace for older books - they are slower - but that too is something to be enjoyed. Isn't there an analogy to music here? Wouldn't it be awful if all you ever could listen to was stuff with an energetic fast moving beat? In some moods, I want something slower and more reflective.

Something that comes to mind for me is Siegfried Sassoon's 'Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man',(and his other lightly fictionalised memoirs of the war). It moves with slow, nostalgic grace - utterly different from his war poems - but just as good in a different way. I've reread it many times and I know I will again!

Nicola Morgan said...

Katherine - I know what you mean. I have recently read Candia McWilliam's memoir of blindness. Her prose is probably the densest that I can think of. every seentence requires effort and is hugely satisfying for that. Plus, it forced me to slow down, which is good. But...in the end, I had to skip through it, missing much, because I just did not have time. I am not proud of it. I missed much of the huge effort and craft of writing, but i wanted to know what happened and I couldn't wait for her to tell me.

Anonymous said...

amazing...i loved the 'biggles' adventure stories as a kid, now at 42, they seem like, um, ...lame kids stories....can only conclude that my reading habits must have changed...

Alison Waller said...


I know I'm a little late in commenting, but I'm fascinated by your thoughts that changes in the aging brain might have an effect on our actual reading ability or practice. I'm doing some research with adults remembering and re-reading books from their childhood and find that disappointment is a common response. I wonder if it's not just changing brains but also the intricate layers of memory and recognition when re-reading that inflect the page-by-page experience. Of course, returning to a book you have already read also involves elements of anticipation and expectation that might change your relationship to the story or style.