Does The Internet Shorten Attention Spans?
Sorry, what was the question again?
Oh, the internet. Hang on, let me Google it.
Last week there were several hand-wringing articles by Will Self and others about the digital age creating shorter attention spends that are damaging our ability to concentrate. The authors worried that immense literary novels – and there are such things, ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker last year and tipped in at 849 pages – are suffering.
I find this argument as spurious and ridiculous as the Victorians worrying about the effect of shortening skirts. In 1973 the Booker was won by JG Farrell’s slender ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’. ‘Offshore’ by Penelope Fitzgerald, at 132 pages, won in 1979. Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ and Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ were only slightly longer. So length is no indication of quality.
If anything, it’s the low-end trashier books which publishers expect to give value for money with extra pages. Dan Brown’s staggeringly awful ‘Inferno’ is over 600 pages long.
Films are getting longer. As for TV, the average box set takes much longer to view than a Dickensian novel, and some are just as good. So no, the internet does not shorten attention spans. What I think it does do is change the way we digest fiction. On an e-reader it’s quite easy to read several books at once, and why not? Immersion in long fiction is hard today, but not because of the internet – it’s because our time is subdivided into tiny parts by the structures of our lives. Simply put, our free time is no such thing. We rarely have the time to be as bored as people born in eras before TV, radio and cinema.
The readers of previous generations enjoyed some wonderful books and put up with an awful lot of very bad ones. If there’s a problem now it’s that delivery on so many formats means we can just choose the best of the best, and the rest barely get seen. Middle-ground fiction now has a smaller audience.
The good news is that the internet allows us to discover authors we might never have once dreamed of reading. There are too few books in translation available, but that’s changing. And if we graze now instead of gorging, well, tapas makes a pleasant chance from a heavy plated meal – and can be just as nourishing.