The Way of the Word

28. June 2010

Are You a Reader or a Consumer?

I know people who take four books with them when they go on a two-week vacation.

I know people who boast that they have more than 20 books on their to-read shelf.

I know people who think that one of the most convenient features of e-readers is that you can read faster, because you no longer have to waste time turning pages.

When I travel, I take one book (or perhaps two short ones) to read on the bus or train or plane. Because when I travel, I have other things to do with my time. If I want to spend my vacation reading, I don’t need to do anywhere. I can save that money.

I currently have 18 books on my to-read shelf. I’m not proud of it. It’s more a testament to my lack of impulse control. I prefer to have fewer books on my to-read shelf, because when I have a lot, I feel pressured into reading faster, to work the pile down. (Note that I use the term “work.”) Also, I tend to be less patient with a book if I have a lot of books I still need to read. It needs to pay off faster, or I’ll put it aside partly read, pick up the next one and don’t look back. (It’s for that reason that I always only check out one book at a time from the library.)

About the speed of reading, I don’t have an e-reader, so I wouldn’t know about that. I don’t really care, though.

The funny thing about the three statements with which I lead in is that I heard them all in the last few days. Just as I put a John Steinbeck novel back on my to-read shelf with the intention to read it later. The reason? Those 18 other books I have mentioned above.  The thing is, the main reason why I read Steinbeck is his writing style. That means I not only need to but actually want to take my time to read his work. To savor it.

I can’t do that if I feel pressured by so many other books that clamor for my attention. Instead, I get some of those out of the way, some books that I can burn through (as I call it) quickly, before turning to something that I want to savor.

Now, I consider myself a passionate reader. It’s my #1 choice for how I spend my spare time. I even admit that there was a time when I always tried to burn through as many books as possible — the “so many books, so little time” approach to reading.

That was back when I was a teenager.

My reading habits have changed since then. In a way, they have matured, and diversified. As a teenager, I wouldn’t have read anything by Gore Vidal, for example (“Gah! Literature! Quick, get me a Star Trek tie-in!”), and I definitely wouldn’t have gone anywhere near a book about graphic design. As my statement about John Steinbeck implies, I no longer read just to read as many books as I can physically manage, but for other reasons. Not just to be entertained, but to enjoy the process of reading, to enjoy the craft of other writers.

In short, I no longer simply consume books.

That seems to make me an endangered species. If you look at the current literary marketplace, everything is geared to get people to read less, and consume more. Everything is driving towards the convenience in the reading experience. Carrying books on vacation is too heavy? Take the e-reader, you can carry a thousand books to read at your holiday destination. You won’t have to bother looking at any sights. Just keep your face glued to the screen. And if you get bored with the books you’ve downloaded, you just delete them and download some more.

(Am I the only one, by the way, who believes that Amazon should offer the Kindle at cost? Because that device is only a tool to generate more turnover for them. Just as book publishers should consider subsidizing other e-readers.)

And if you want the book experience without having to, you know, actually read, you can always get an audiobook. You can listen to it while driving. Instead of, you know, paying attention to what you actually should pay attention to, like driving and traffic and all that dull stuff.

(I’m not as down on audiobooks as that sounds. They aren’t for me — I get more easily distracted from things that I hear than things that I see, so I can be better immersed in reading than being read to. But the convenience factor makes them potentially dangerous. Just like I want drivers to pay attention to traffic instead of their cellphones, I want them to pay attention to traffic instead of an audiobook. If anyone tells me they aren’t paying attention to the audiobook they listen to while driving, then why do they have it on while driving?)

Books are a consumer product. That isn’t new. They have been consumer products at the very least since the introduction of affordable paperback novels. Heck, the pulps were cheap, disposeable consumer literature. The problem is, however, that these conveniences turn everything into cheap and disposeable consumer literature.

What does that mean in practice? More formulaic writing is one consequence. We already see that in bookstores: the shelves are full of books that are all the same. All written to cover the latest hot topic. All written according to the same supposedly proven formula. Mass market fiction, true to its name, becomes less and less original, and increasinly formulaic. The “if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all” syndrome. We’re already there, to a certain extent, and if writers have to write with an eye towards the increasing reader convenience in consuming their product, it will only get more so. At the same time, book consumers will spend less time reading any particular book. They have so many books to read and so little time… So anything that doesn’t deliver right away gets tossed aside for something else.

That’s good news for publishers and for booksellers. Online booksellers, at least. Not so much for writers. Face it, writer: in the brave new world of publishing, it’s increasingly unlikely that people will read your new book all the way through.

People who still read are increasingly becoming consumers. The quick fix, the “so much to read but so little time” approach. The actual reader, who savors the experience, is turning into an endangered species. What you need to decide for yourself is whether or not that is a good thing. If reading becomes a throwaway activity, instead of improving the quality of your life — then the long-term implications aren’t good.

I admit that as a writer, I was never very fond of how the brave new world of writing and publishing has been described by others. Now I’ve reached the point where, even as a reader, I dread what is coming.

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