BreakingModern — As a reader and writer of fiction, I think an awful lot about the state of reading in America. What has the news feed done to this nation of idealistic dreamers? What have tablets and e-readers done to the paperback novel? And how important is it to sit down and read a fictional story?
I think about it lying in bed, just as I’m about to turn off the lights — half the time I check my news feed until sleep beckons, half the time I plow through another Gaiman novel. I think about it on BART, where 60 percent (on a good day) of commuters and tourists are staring intently at their phones, rather than a book or magazine.
In my world, reading is paramount. Reading fiction, specifically. It fuels creativity, tells my brain to relax and lets me enter another world. I think we all crave those things, but I don’t know if our society is geared toward them anymore.
Digital vs. Paper
The first debate that rages around this topic is whether or not e-books are changing everything. Yes, they are.
E-books heralded a new age in literature and news. Humans, historically speaking, started telling stories and events, true and un-true, through speech. The oral tradition is how Herodotus’ histories were collected and how epic poems like the Odyssey were amassed. This then migrated to the written word, the printing press and the publishing houses in New York and London (to move rather quickly). These two eras of humanity embodied the way we transmitted information to one another.
The e-book is the third migration. While very similar to physical publishing, the e-book (and all subsequent e-text) changes fundamental aspects of usage. Never has our text been so searchable, so interconnected and so immediate. It’s not better or worse — it’s just the next way we spread information.
The real issue with e-books is not the text itself, but the devices on which you can read the text. Kindle or iBooks might display beautifully and search quickly while an app like Oyster gives you access to literally hundreds of thousands of books, but all of them require a smartphone, tablet or computer. And those devices have a huge amount of other apps, just a click away, which can take consumers from the well-crafted world of words to a movie, TV show or stream of social news.
“E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity.”
If you constantly read on a device, it means you could also be watching TV, checking the news or scrolling through cat memes (see what I did there? Distraction).
How can we expect to engage fully in literature if the temptations of the world are at the same fingertips that scroll across those digital pages? And if we don’t engage fully — due to overstimulation, lack of self-control or minor techy addiction — we won’t fall into the imaginative world of literature as quickly.
The News Feed
In my experience, the most distracting of all these device-based entertainments is the news feed. I remember when Facebook first rolled it out — my homepage was no longer my profile page, it was endless information about everyone I knew. As the feed progressed (and spread to every other social site) ads, links and news stories began to fill the space.
I have two issues with the news feed. First, it enables a culture of brief, momentary encounters. Gary Vaynerchuk, an entrepreneur in e-commerce, recently gave an educational lecture at No Film School. He said,
“[I spend my time] figuring out how to story-tell in micro-moments. [We] live in the greatest ADD culture of our time, [we] have absolutely no time. I’m obsessed with the notion of how do I tell you my story, when you take out your phone, and you do this.”
The “this” he’s describing is the endless smartphone finger scroll. While Vaynerchuk is completely right — to get your story or point across in today’s world, you must adapt to the news feed — I don’t see this is a good thing. This mentality further empowers our brief, ADD attitude toward all forms of media, and makes full concentration (on something like a novel) more and more challenging.
The second issue I have is that while the news feed seems to present a wide variety of endless information, the algorithms currently in place actually make the rapid cycle very closed. Not only does the feed show so many competing stories that the brain can’t possibly (and doesn’t want to) delve deeply into a single one, but it quickly becomes a curated version of the world.
And, music and film-trailers aside, the articles that tend to surface for everyone are about police brutality, political mishaps, crazy recipes and celebrities. Sure, you can control and block certain content, but how many of us do that? Rarely are the trending topics about a great piece of literature you can read, for free, at that very moment. If that did pop up, would anyone take the time to do it?
Fiction Reading Rollercoaster
The National Endowment for the Arts conducted a study called “Reading on the Rise,” which measured American literary reading habits over 26 years. It showed that between 2002 and 2008 reading of fiction rose on a national level. It deemed this success to many factors, but mainly to a strong governmental and school-wide push to increase literary interest in the youth.
And, for those six years, it worked. Since 2008, however, the number of fiction readers have dropped to 46 percent, the same number as in 2002, and the lowest number the country has had in the last 30 years.
Quentin Fottrell of MarketWatch lists a number of reasons. He cites the rise of autobiographies and self-help books (still reading, but not fiction), social networking’s lack of fiction promotion and downright narcissism. He says,
“Americans may be more fascinated with their own lives than with those featured in great works of literary fiction: Some 56 percent of Internet users have searched for themselves online, such as by typing their own name into Google, according to the Pew Research Center. Studies also show that people’s attention spans are getting shorter.”
While each of those points is valid, I think the desire and accessibility for apps and smartphones has played a role as well. The iPhone was released in 2007. Apps have grown so tremendously from 2008-2012 that entire industries and full-fledged economies have exploded in the U.S. And with all that great, life-changing technology, our national reading went down.
PEW Research shows that tablets and e-reader ownership is continually on the rise, and while that does mean people read books and care about reading, it also means their method of reading is more closely connected to the news feed and a hundred other distracting apps.
What Fiction Can Do For You
So, you might wonder at this point, why is fiction so important?
Well, a couple reasons. A study released by psychologists showed that reading literary fiction — like Charles Dickens and Anton Chekov — can increase your empathy. In figuring out the complex character motives involved with reading great literature, the study claims, we can actually better understand humans around us.
It’s ironic that social networks may actually pale in the development of human understanding and connection when compared with reading great literature.
But it’s more than that. Fiction lets us see new worlds — worlds that are separate from this incredibly fast-paced reality. Worlds that are unique and abundant and true in their own way.
If we are so focused on tiny snippets of news that cycle endlessly and only depict the current state of affairs, how will we create something new? Innovation is the hottest tech trend out there, but I believe we must take the time to fully enter another perspective in order to create anything unique.
Screenshot: Daniel Zweier