Your Attention Please: The Battle For Readership

Reading & Writing

My pal Porl just bought his first Kindle and thinks of it as ‘succumbing’ – I say read by any means necessary. Of the various devices above, I can theoretically read on all except one – but I don’t. Books and a Kindle are enough.

Reading is declining in general. A teacher from Seattle tells me there is now a new generation of young Americans who do not read at all. UK figures show a startling drop in reading too. The idea that books could hold their own beside every other form of entertainment is now starting to look like a pipe dream.

Reading is not easy. Like restoration comedy, Shakespeare and musique concrète it takes a fair amount of patience to get the best out of it, and in the first two cases it’s worth the effort.

Reading is a habit. Break it and you have to be led back. Restart it and you need training wheels again for the first few days. Reading is not like broccoli. You don’t consume it because it’s good for you, but because you love it.

Reading has new competition. Longform TV dramas like ‘Gomorrah’, ‘Money Heist’ or ‘Big Little Lies’ are proving every bit as satisfactory as a good book.

But the transfer of our valuable time to television may not prove to be a permanent switch. Network viewing figures are plunging and streaming TV is volatile. Netflix’s gloss is starting to tarnish and they’re still deep in debt. I recently started box-setting ‘Veep’, and halfway through its Sky licence expired. Now I can’t find the other half anywhere.

And my Kindle reading pattern is changing. I have around a thousand books on it, a lot of them research (it’s like Arthur Bryant’s bookshelves in there) but many of the novels I’ve started I have yet to finish.

The Poisonwood Bible

Human Flies

The Collected Jules Verne

Fire From Heaven

The Unburied

…I appear to have stopped them all around page 60, not because I’m not enjoying them but because I’ve hit a tricky patch and have set it aside, where before I would have ploughed on through.

Has my reawoken viewing habit affected my attention span, or am I demanding too much from a book now? A novel is not a multi-million dollar project developed by dozens of people over years but the product of a lone writer hopefully making a sale to a publishing house.

Book are still affordable enough to be dumped if you’re not enjoying them. The problem – for a generation at least – may be in getting readers to pick one up at all.

17 comments on “Your Attention Please: The Battle For Readership”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I have dozens of novels on my kidle I have given up on. If I’m not hooked I try something else. No fault of the author (mostly) I just want something that gets me to the point where I’m sad when I finish it.

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I much prefer paper books to ebooks.
    Where do audiobooks fit? I don’t use them much either, but younger people seem to.
    I do think that life is too short to finish books you aren’t enjoying, but if you don’t pick them up in the first place, you will never find out if you enjoy them.
    I met a woman in the library a couple of weeks ago who felt she had to justify borrowing books when she could afford to buy them. I hope I convinced her that she should continue to borrow them so that the library would still be there if she ever needed it.

  3. Liz Thompson says:

    I too prefer paper books to e-books, but sometimes a book I really want to read isn’t available as a hard copy. Or it is out of print and second-hand is way beyond my price range, even on Amazon, Abe Books or eBay. At that point I get an e-book. Like one Christopher Fowler’s book , Red Gloves…..

  4. Brooke says:

    Reading (for pleasure) or media for reading (for pleasure)? Fact check ( US Bureau of Labor Stats, Pew Charitable Trust, IPA, etc.). Yes, US spends less time reading for pleasure, down to ~16 minutes/day. No surprise that; we spend most of our time before a tiny screen reading for work. Who reads follows demographics: high net worth folks read alot–books aren’t luxuries for them–as do urban and suburban educated professional class..

    Non-fiction reading is up; fiction down. Blame publishing industry for treating fiction as projects with/w.o multi-million dollar movie franchise potential, thus offering us unreadable boring novels.

    “Non-reading” youngs are driving audiobook market. I’m joining them; eyesight like Arthur’s and library system does a great job with digital audiobook catalogue. Like youngs, I live in a small space; digital books can be returned to cloud from whence they came.

    No dumping, please. Libraries are in funding crunch. If library doesn’t have a science, economic, history or philosophy text I want, I offer to purchase and donate. Fiction gets recirculated shelters, cafes, train stations.

  5. Bernard says:

    I suspect you have under-rated listening, in particular, audiobooks and podcasts. I walk a great deal and listen to audiobooks and podcasts while doing so. I probably listen to two or three books for every one I read and I know I get through a dozen podcasts a week (mostly politics and technology). Podcasts, some of which are serials, are increasingly popular. Words, language, ideas…

  6. Jo W says:

    I haven’t given up on real books. As long as I can find some second hand copies of books by authors who are long out of print, I will use online sources and charity shops.
    This month I have ordered eleven books, next month there are three I have my eyes on, September has the promise of two more and I believe there may be a book to interest me in October?
    Space is lacking to receive these,( ‘im indoors has turned down a request for more shelves) so last week a major clearing exercise was needed. Thirty seven old favourites are now waiting to go to charity shops,where I hope that they will not only generate funds for those charities but be just what someone else has been searching for.

  7. Dave Kearns says:

    “Reading is not easy. Like restoration comedy, Shakespeare and musique concrète it takes a fair amount of patience to get the best out of it, and in the first two cases it’s worth the effort.” Just became my #quoteoftheday for today!

  8. Eric Jamborsky says:

    I do not understand people who do not read. I am uncomfortable if I visit someone and see no books. My thought is, what is wrong with these people? I have been reading for over sixty years, have tried e-books and find the, for the most part, unsatisfactory. I miss the tactile relationship to paper books. But the Kindle and others have been the pathway to reading for many younger people so I am happy to support them. And I will admit they take up a lot less room and add no weight to your Kindle, a major consideration when having to move.

  9. eggsy says:

    Musique concrète? Depends on my mood. Sometimes. But yes, reading is a habit, which, unlike the chemical ones, needs to be re-learned after being broken. Interesting to hear that e-books are easier to abandon – I’m relatively new to electronic reading (a fairly ludicrous amount of free texts – from the usual suspects like Project Gutenberg – are [worryingly] barely touching the sides of my phone’s memory. I may challenge Arthur’s rarefied tastes – Nicobar Islands, The Forme of Cury, The Art of Neckties etc…).
    But I know without searching my memory the location of my non-completed dead-tree media, and the approximate location within of the accusing bookmarks. And the books I’ve bought with best intentions but haven’t yet started. So far I’m making a concerted effort to finish all e-books started but….
    I already have intimations of mortality with the impossibility of reading _everything_ . And yet here I am noodling about on the interweb and later on intending to watch something-not-very-improving on the idiot box when I could be reading Cervantes. Or the rest of Shakespeare. Or, dammit, Merriman’s Gas Burners Old and New…

    Promotional slogan –
    “E-books. Because there aren’t enough shelves”

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Still don’t have an e-reader. Don’t care. Our library has e-books but I’m not interested – yet.

    Long form television drama. Is that what used to be broadcast weekly in chapters? What people download at the end of the season and then binge watch? Don’t quite understand that; do they not have the concentration to remember what happened a week ago so have to have it in one great lump or what?

    My sympathies, Jo, although you could build your own shelves. That might create more than a few moments of tension, though, so clearing out periodically is probably the best answer. I still have piles on the floor & beside the bed & on the … well you get the picture.

  11. John Howard says:

    Luckily I learned long, long ago that books were the place to go when I wanted to immerse myself in another world. In this modern age I tend to read on all platforms, but still mainly on paper and after a discussion with admin long ago my favourites now get bought in hardback.
    That does lead to shelf problems but what the hell.
    I wonder if the whole ‘immersing myself in another world’ is the problem in the modern age.? Far too many options of social media, games and other stuff on the good old mobile device has taken the potential modern reader away from the written word. You can even binge watch the box set on them if you want. All this is soooo much easier than reading word after word. Ah well, grumpy old git retires to his chair and picks up book.

  12. Peter Tromans says:

    I prefer paper. Screens are for work. And TV screens mainly for total brain switch-off. We try to restrict ourselves to paperbacks for shelf space, but the wait for publication is frustrating. As for a clear out…

  13. admin says:

    I take it back about The Poisonwood Bible. In an idle moment I flicked from the dull book I was reading and dropped back into it, so we’re off again…perhaps the timing had been wrong. That’s a thing Kindle’s great at doing, letting you hop about.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Glad you went back to Poisonwood. I found it a fascinating read. That word covers a multitude of things and I don’t intend to be specific. Oh, I’ve just finished “Real Tigers” so I get the Peter Judd references now.

  15. Kriss says:

    I can help with Veep, if you want!!!

  16. Mimi Paller says:

    I live in the city of horrendous commutes. How can one drive for over an hour without listening to a book? Listening to public radio has been too depressing for years.
    I do remember callers to Click and Clack, the Cartalk Brothers, scaring all commuters by describing how they read print books while driving.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Kriss – it’s obviously a series I should have been watching.

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