Saturday, August 15, 2009

In praise of the slow read, or why we need longer attention spans

Attention spans are shortening. I hear it all the time, and don’t doubt it either. People are bombarded with fast-paced moving imagery on television, in computer games, in media of all types and we scan, cram, multitask, grab a quick bite and move on. From a literary perspective, Noah Lukeman tells us that we get five pages to capture an agent or publisher’s attention, and there is evidence that the same is true for readers. If you don’t grab their interest quickly, well, there are plenty of other books out there that will, besides, we only have five minutes to devote to reading. But is this good? From the perspective of a reader, is it wise? There are some novels that will grab you from the first page and hold on until the last. Some of the more successful young adult books have developed the “cliffhanger” to the point of perfection. But just because a book is slow or languid, doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t engaging. Sometimes engagement takes time and effort, and complex meaning needs space to unfold. I find that, even on re-reading, anything by Virginia Woolf needs a reading of the entire book before the full power and meaning becomes clear. Judge too quickly and you’ll miss the big picture. The last book I read (re-read) – Life of Pi – was the same. The bigger picture required the entire space of the book. I simply was unable to judge it adequately on the first five pages. Now I’m a busy gal. I run everywhere and multitask constantly. But I’m still in favour of reading (and to be honest, writing) slowly. I don’t believe that it’s healthy to consume everything so quickly, and discard so readily. It just doesn't allow digestion to occur properly, and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. Surely there’s still value in teaching our children (and ourselves) to wait for gratification? If we don’t at least occasionally learn to wait a little we’re in danger or making judgement too soon, and allowing our desire for constant external stimulation to stop us from experiencing the beautiful in favour of the quick. Your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. When I pick up a book, I sit down with it and take it as it comes. I tend to read memoirs and non-fiction but I suspect it would be the same with novels. I suspect lit majors are different kinds of readers than other kind of readers. Lit majors trust that the book will prove itself in the long run. Also, sometimes folks just love reading. IT doesn't matter what one is reading...but once one picks it up, one finishes. it. -C