Skim Or Swim – The Book Must Go On

In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).

After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading.

The act of reading has been evolving forever. From Papyrus to parchment, to paper, to typewriter, to a computer, to a mobile phone . . . the way we read has come a long way. As reading habits change due to digital distraction and the dynamic nature of the web, our ability to consume long pieces of text and our capacity to focus is declining. Thus, not only are we reading differently, our brains are being exercised in a new way that is causing a shift in our cognitive processes. This transformation in the act of reading is affecting how publishers and innovators are approaching literature.

Canadians are among the biggest online addicts in the world, visiting more sites and spending more time visiting websites via desktop computers than anyone else in the world, according to comScore Canada. According to them, Canadians visit an average of 80 sites and spend an average of 36.3 hours online on their desktop computers every month. This leads us to the question: are people skimming content in same way they would skim their FB feed? Have our online scrolling and browsing habits affected our ability and desire to read real works of literature?

As has been discussed in our class, websites are designed to support the skimming behaviour, with clear heading, sub headings and the emphasis on the F-shaped pattern. Reading online can affect how we process information. Even as the online fatigue gets to us, we filter though the popping ads, hyperlinks, distracting layouts, colors and contrasts. These considerations that the reader has to make today, is steadily turning the goal of reading from contemplative to utilitarian. Time is of essence as our whole world is captured in one single screen and is constantly vying for our attention.

Considering that scrolling and scanning are the way of the future, the publishers and authors have to keep the needs (without assumptions) of the readers working through so many distractions and a shorter attention span.

Radish fiction is effectively doing this by serializing longer books in romance genre for its readers. Similarly, Juggernaut Books, India is remediating longer works of literature into shorter abridged versions to encourage the distracted/ reluctant readers to read more, imitating the short-term goals of digital reading. Author James Patterson is of the opinion that people have trade books for TV, movies, mobiles and social media. He craftily created a new line of short and propulsive novels, called Bookshots, that are easy on the pocket at $5 and can be consumed in a single sitting. The idea of serialized content is not new. Earlier it was done considering the reading style, level and genre of the content. But now, with digital reading making a one big umbrella, it can be applied to most of content being published. Another innovation is Spritz – a reading software that runs a speed reading box that shows no more than thirteen words at a time on a rolling basis and keeps you from getting distracted by the rest of the page.

So yes, the publishers care, as they should. But, this is no longer a lone man’s job. Publisher, authors and innovators need to work hand-in-hand as the readers re-calibrate  to the reading style of the future, whatever that may be.

Who knows . . . it might be wearable books!

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reading Lessons From Proust And The Squid.” In Proust and the Squid, by Mayanne Wolf, 3-17. HarpeerCollins Publishers, 2007.

One Reply to “Skim Or Swim – The Book Must Go On”

  1. Thank you for sharing some of the ways that publishers are already tackling the problem of shallow or distraceted reading. It’s too easy to look to the large publishers who are beginning to dip their toes into ebooks and audiobooks, and assume that that’s all that is happening. But often, as you show, it’s the smaller publishers and new companies who are the innovators.

    I always find it interesting how cyclical the world can be. In this case, as you point out, serialization may be making a comeback. Do you think that catering to this current reading trend will help improve deep reading?

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