Wednesday, June 2, 2010

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 fact 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 5 minutes to read. 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. Good poetry often takes several readings before the denouement hits or the meaning becomes clear. 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, to be sure. 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. 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.


  1. So true. There are a lot of books that you can't just rush through or you won't get it. I think people are looking for fast gratification. I kinda think of our fast paced life as an info drug. Think about the news or even news articles. Are all the facts there? No. Reporters just highlight information nowadays. Trouble is people don't get the whole picture. We need to read, experience, and absorb the world around us. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great points, Magdalena. In writing suspense, I've found that I have to write an opening scene that grabs the reader's attention instantly. I'm character-driven in my writing and don't always want to open with an explosion or a murder. However, that's what readers have come to expect of the genre. And, I must admit, I'm often guilty of those same expectations.