Lengthy Books

November 19th, 2009

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t think people will read lengthy works anymore:

But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

I fear he’s right — we have so many different sources of media vying for our attention that the quiet, commitment-requiring book can’t even begin to compete — but I don’t think he is. Not many people read Moby Dick from cover to cover to begin with.1 It’s always been a small subset of the public that seriously reads literature, so I’m not sure if anything is really changing for lengthy writing.

But lengthy works can only exist in a medium that allows it. Books allow long works because books demand a singular focus from their readers: you can’t read a book and check your email and Twitter at the same time. Digital mediums, like the computer and to a slightly lesser extent smart phones, don’t demand this focus. While reading an article, I’m looking at one layer that’s on top of several others, a background, and a dock with icons in it. I’m not focused on that essay as much as I could be, because I can look at anything else on the web in a split second. Computers aren’t for reading, because your focus is perpetually split. That’s the downside to multi-tasking.

Mobile devices like the iPhone are better in this regard, but not completely. Because applications take the entire screen, while reading on the iPhone you can focus only on the text — but you are still only two taps away from browsing the web or making a call.

Content within this medium must compete for the user’s attention. This encourages short, punchy pieces; to the point and dramatic. It is no wonder that content on the web tends to be short and of the “10 ways to supercharge your blog” variety.

So I am not sure that it is the culture that’s influencing the kind of content, so much as it is the medium. What we need, then, are digital devices that demand the same focus as books, and can wrap a reader up in them. Hence the Kindle. These devices must come close to the book’s intuitive feel — there should be nothing on the screen but text (the Kindle’s menu bar at the top is a terrible offender), and interaction with the device must be natural. While reading it, you forget you’re holding it; when you “flip” a page, it doesn’t break the story’s spell.

The Kindle is an advancement toward this, but it doesn’t reach it. The most attractive thing about the Kindle is that content is its absolute focus. But, unfortunately, the screen is a dark gray, a constant reminder it isn’t paper; pages take a while to re-draw; its chin, and keyboard, are visually distracting.

A tablet would eliminate some of these issues; there would be nothing to distract visually as it would be just a screen, and pages would change immediately. But the tablet would be a convergence device, as this is what people demand — it would browse the web, email and watch media. Distraction comes back into the picture. In this sense, the tablet seems ideal not for literature, but for news and magazine content. Long-form content by web standards, but short enough to be read quickly. No commitment necessary.

So that’s the issue. Dedicated reading devices promise the singular focus of books, but the technology isn’t quite there yet (and the companies making them haven’t shown they can design a device with the necessary natural feel in its hardware and software), while the technology absolutely is here for the tablet.2 These two devices represent two competing mediums — and more than culture, I think this is what will decide what kind of content we read in the future.

  1. I read most of Moby Dick in high school, but sat it down after Melville’s exhausting classification of different kinds of whales. That broke my will. []
  2. It’s unfortunate that dedicated devices aren’t quite developed enough yet, because combining them with an iPhone is powerful. The dedicated device for reading long-form content when all you want to do is read, and the iPhone for reading magazine-like content and small parts of long-form content while mobile. []