Reading in the 21st Century

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Beautiful woman from back with white hat reads kindle and holds a hat

Recently I came upon a new-to-me website on digital publishing, whose content I’ve been reading with interest and pleasure. Haven’t yet discovered who these folks are, but they write a lively blog and provide a great deal of industry news.

Today I read a post by Andrew Rhomberg, “Start Strong or Lose Your Readers.” It’s an extended riff on the old chestnut to the effect that you have to hook your reader within the first graf or two, lest she or he wander off to play with the cat or pop some corn or turn on a soap opera, never to return. There’s certainly something to that, and Rhomberg has the analytics to prove it. 🙂

In a comment that evidently didn’t make it past the Captcha, I argue that the whole story is not told:

“…reading fiction is a very linear activity in which you start at the beginning of the novel and, following the story arc, read until you reach the end. You don’t usually hop in and out of chapters as you would do in a non-fiction book or textbook,…”

Man reading a book in a coffee shop

Really? What if the cat jumps up on the sofa and barfs all over it? What if the baby wakes up in the middle of the afternoon and needs to be fed? What if you have to drop what you’re doing and go pick up the kids from soccer? What if your lunch hour ends and you have to go back to work? What if your boss walks by your cube and you have to pretend you’re working (heaven forfend!)? What if your cell blats at you, you answer the call, you become distracted, you waft over to Facebook, and then it’s quitting time and you have to commute home, picking up the the kiddies from daycare on the way and while you’re at it stopping to get them a Burger King and  then getting them ready for soccer practice while feeding the husband that extra  Burger King you picked up and also remembering to feed the cat and clean out the cat box and herding the kids into the RV so you can pick up four of the team members to carpool to that evening’s soccer practice and….

My point is that reading is far from a linear activity. For most readers in the digital age, it is disjointed, eclectic, and often spread out over days or even weeks. Few of  us have the luxury to indulge in linear activities anymore.

Young couple reading book on the grass on a sunny dayNor is it true that we’re any more inclined to read a novel from start to end without jumping around than we do with nonfiction. Who doesn’t peek ahead to find the sexy scenes or to see if the butler really did it?

Our digitized lives are gestalt, and so are all the habits and activities that populate our fragmented, fractured days, hours, and minutes. Those who build information by snooping into digital consumers’ reading habits seem to do so with certain presuppositions that may not let them see the whole picture. That one pauses in reading a digital document doesn’t mean the person is done reading it, or that she or he won’t come back to it. Come back to it, we might add, again and again.

Digital content by its nature is gestalt. Its very nature calls to us to drop what we’re doing

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how…

and skip over to another screen

Job growth settled into a more sustainable pace in January and the unemployment rate dropped to an almost eight-year low of 4.9 percent, signs of a resilient labor…,

and then from there to click on a link that takes us to another page

PHOENIX – Protests outside the US Foods facility in west Phoenix have now entered the second day. Thursday, as many as 200 protestors showed up near 43rd Avenue and Buckeye Road. The workers are demanding better health benefits and are also accusing US Foods of not wanting…

and a new subject

Bruce Chapman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said: “UAVSAR is ideally suited for observing the Nasca site because the region has virtually no vegetation and receives no rainfall whatsoever in most years, meaning that natural disturbances are minimal…”

whose background we can’t fail to look up

(The Nazca Lines /ˈnæzkə/ are a series of ancient geoglyphs located in the Nazca Desert[citation needed] in southern Peru. They were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The high, arid plateau stretches more than 80 km (50 mi) between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana about 400 km south of Lima. Although some local geoglyphs resemble…)

and then we must tweet it or “share” it on Facebook and…

Facebook? What’s Jane doing today?

And now, heaven help us, it’s time to jump back in the car and go on our way.

Our lives are so filled with distraction that distraction has become our nature. There’s no such thing as a linear activity anymore.

So, I submit, it’s risky to assume that because a reader wanders from a digital bookoid, she necessarily has lost interest, or that she necessarily will never return to it.

Reading ain’t what it used to be. Neither are readers.

Reading (and readers!) aren't what they used to be. If you're a writer, here's what to be aware of.

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