And I'm not talking about paper versus digital. I'm talking about curling up with a good book, for hours. Sitting in a hammock, or in a chair by the fire, just totally pulled into a book. Is the long, totally focused book-reading session a thing of the past — and does this mean we're getting less immersed in our stories?
Top image: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
We've never had more distractions keeping us from focusing totally on a book as we have today — in fact, sometimes it feels like half the non-fiction books published in a given week are bemoaning how distracted and overwhelmed with input we all are nowadays. But there are also plenty of signs that the way we're reading books is changing. Not because of e-books, per se — e-book readers do a good job of replicating the experience of reading a book on paper — but because our lives and relationships with technology are changing.
Just this past weekend, every gadget and design blog was obsessed with a new app called Spritz, which lets you read way faster. (On Friday, all the articles were saying it would let you read 500 words per minute, but by today that was up to 1,000 words per minute.) Spritz works by giving you one word at a time, in a 13-character space, and carefully positions the words so that you never have to move your eyes at all. The notion is that eye-movement is a wasted activity that slows down your reading speed, and you ought to be able to read War and Peace in short order.
People have been warning about the death of reading for decades — just check out this 1991 Los Angeles Times article that blames television and videogames for driving people away from books. In 2007, a study found half of young people weren't reading for pleasure any more.
But if anything, the past half-dozen years has seen an encouraging trend in terms of people reading books for pleasure. E-book readers have become more popular and widespread, and suddenly everybody was buying more books again. Especially among younger people, the ability to read a novel on your phone has meant a boom in book-buying and reading.
But how are people's reading habits changing? Now that we read on e-readers and phones, do we tend to read a few minutes at a time, instead of sitting in a chair for an hour or two? Also, as everybody works harder and also spends more time using the internet, is book-reading becoming just another "app" that we shuffle through, between Flappy Bird and Google Hangout?
Is this changing the way we think about books? And more importantly, do we tend to get less immersed in books as a result?
Let's examine these questions one by one, looking at the evidence that's out there.
Now that books have to compete with everything else on your phone or tablet, are people spending less time total reading them? There certainly seems to be some evidence to back that up — along with some evidence that e-readers are actually reversing this trend.
A 2012 poll of British smartphone users found that 26 percent of them were spending less time reading books, now that they could browse the internet on their phones. Similarly, a recent Yomiuri Shimbun poll in Japan also found that the more people use smartphones, the less they read books.
And a 2013 HuffingtonPost poll found that 41 percent of respondents had not read a fiction book in the past year, while 28 percent had not read a book at all. But bear in mind all of those polls are based on self-reported data, from a self-selected group of respondents.
But a recent Pew Internet survey found that the average ebook reader has read 24 books in the past year, compared with 15 books for non-ebook readers. And 21 percent of Americans had read an ebook in the previous 12 months, up from 17 percent a year earlier.
Here's a cool infographic showing hours per week spent reading around the world, via Russia Beyond the Headlines:
It certainly seems, based on anecdotal evidence, as though people read for shorter amounts of time per session than they used to. Instead of sitting in an easy chair and reading, most people seem to read on the bus, or on the toilet, or whatever. This is partly our more hectic lifestyles, but also the convenience of pulling up a book on your phone or e-reader.
The Wall Street Journal reported on a 2010 study that found Kindle owners were buying 3.3 times as many books as they had before owning the device — which is an amazing increase — and then adds this detail from the survey:
But because e-book gadgets are portable, people report they're reading more and at times when a book isn't normally an option: on a smartphone in the doctor's waiting room; through a Ziploc-bag-clad Kindle in a hot tub, or on a treadmill with a Sony Reader's fonts set to jumbo. Among commuters, e-readers are starting to catch up with BlackBerrys as the preferred companions on trains and buses.
But that's not all — German firm Readmill did a study in the U.S. and Germany, and found people are actually reading books more often on smartphones than on dedicated e-book readers. And that's even more conducive to snatching a moment with a book here and there.
According to Readmill's research, people spend more time reading per book on their phones, and they tend to finish more books if they read them on their phones than on tablets. Most significantly, check out the bar for "use frequency" in the chart below — people pull up books much more often on phones than on e-readers, which suggests lots of brief reading sessions throughout the day.
Meanwhile, the same 2007 study that claimed half of young people never read for pleasure any more (which predates the ebook boom in earnest) also found that young people are spending around 10 minutes per day reading books:
And that young people are more likely to read books while also watching TV, looking at websites or instant messaging:
Also, one study found that people read a story by Ernest Hemingway 6.2 percent slower on the iPad and 10.7 percent slower on a Kindle than on the printed page — possibly due to lower text resolution on those devices. (Obviously, this won't be a problem, if people start using Spritz.)
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the audiobook business — which seemed a relic of a bygone era at one point — has boomed in recent years, reaching $1.2 billion in sales as compared to $480 million in 1997. Sales of downloaded audiobooks grew nearly 30 percent in 2011 alone.
But does listening to a story on an audiobook — especially while you drive or do chores — reduce your appreciation for the storytelling? There's some debate about that, according to the Wall Street Journal article:
The rapid rise of audio books has prompted some hand- wringing about how we consume literature. Print purists doubt that listening to a book while multitasking delivers the same experience as sitting down and silently reading. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that for competent readers, there is virtually no difference between listening to a story and reading it. The format has little bearing on a reader's ability to understand and remember a text. Some scholars argue that listening to a text might even improve understanding, especially for difficult works like Shakespeare, where a narrator's interpretation of the text can help convey the meaning.
Less is known about how well people absorb stories when they are also driving or lifting weights or chopping vegetables. Commuters still account for half of audio book buyers, according to a report from the research firm Bowker, which tracks the book business...
Some writers worry that the practice of silent reading could be threatened, as impatient and busy readers no longer take time to concentrate on a text.
"If we come to think reading is this secondary activity we do while doing other stuff, then we lose that deepest and most important kind of reading," said Nicholas Carr, author of 'The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.' "The broader danger is that technology will give us the illusion that everything can be done while multitasking, including reading."
Audible is now funding cognitive research at Rutgers University to study the brain activity of test subjects while they are reading a text, listening to it, reading and listening simultaneously, and switching between the two modes. The research is continuing and has yet to be published, but early results suggest that listening to a narrator may be more emotionally engaging than silent reading, particularly for men, says Guy Story, Audible's chief scientist.
So there you have it — the data is inconclusive, at best, but given that audiobooks are more often consumed while multitasking, there's some cause for concern that audiobooks lead to less immersion, less of the feeling of getting "sucked in" to a book. (But with a good narrator or voice cast, you may actually have more emotional engagement in the story.)
Which raises the further question: How important is that "lost in a good book" feeling anyway?
Whether you think there's a difference between brief, distracted reading periods and long, focused reading periods depends on what you think reading a good book is like. Is the best metaphor playing a piece of complicated music on the piano (based on the idea that every reader interprets the book and conjures imagery in his or her head?) Is it like entering a kind of trance, or meditative state? Is it work? Play?
If reading is like a trance, or something else that your brain engages in more deeply over time, then you would expect that a few hours at a stretch reading a book would be more rewarding than a similar amount of time divided into 15-minute sessions. But if it's like a form of play, then maybe a smattering of short bursts is the same as one long engagement.
We have some evidence that there are different styles of reading, and that they engage your brain differently — a couple years ago, Stanford University researchers had people read a chapter of Jane Austen in different ways, and put them into an fMRI machine to see what happened to their brains. And indeed, leisurely "pleasure reading" lit up different areas of the brain than intense "close reading," in which the participants paid close attention to every word and tried to analyze it. The "close reading," in particular, lit up typically underused sections of the brain.
And here's a literature review which claims that there's evidence the process of reading on a screen is "cognitively different" than the process of reading on paper, in part because you tend to jump around the page more and there are more distractions.(In general, there are a number of people out there claiming that the mere fact that words are on a screen rather than paper changes how your brain interacts with them as objects — but that sounds like a different concern, and I'm not convinced there's really a neurological difference per se between electronic and paper documents.)
There's also evidence that people who read fiction for pleasure are more open-minded and more able to deal with uncertainty.
But the strongest argument that there's a difference between long dedicated reading sessions and quickies comes from a Time Magazine essay by Annie Murphy Paul from last summer, in which she claims:
The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.
This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls "carnal reading" and "spiritual reading." If we allow our offspring to believe carnal reading is all there is — if we don't open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice — we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter.
You can read Victor Nell's study, published in 1988, here — Nell argues that there's something called "ludic reading," which is basically reading for pleasure. Anything can be a vehicle for "ludic reading," even "a torn scrap of newsprint," but fiction is most often the focus. Nell did five different studies of what happens when you read for pleasure — and he did find that you slow down, but also that skilled readers "move freely between bolting text and savoring it," depending on whether they were at one of the good parts in the story. And he found some evidence that "ludic reading" causes cognitive changes in habitual readers.
So is the hammock an essential reading tool, whether you're on a Kindle or a giant hardcover? Is a certain amount of bodily relaxation and mental focus an essential ingredient, that's in danger of being lost?
As I said before, it depends on what metaphor for reading you favor — but it does feel, subjectively, as though when I pick up a book for a spell here and there, I tend to forget the details of the plot more and maybe get less engrossed in the story. And books, even more than television or movies, may reward sustained, slow attention in a way that can't be replicated with speed-reading apps and random glances.
The real worry is that if people wind up reading in a less rewarding fashion, they'll get fewer rewards from reading — and then books will become less an object of passionate love and more of a momentary distraction, after all. But then again, books have changed constantly, since the invention of the printing press. And the biggest lesson from all the studies of reading behavior and the brain is that our brains aren't formed to deal with books — rather, books are designed to cope with our brains and their ever-changing needs.