This is the thing, though. It’s not the churn of the twenty-four-hour news cycle that has dismembered that style of reading you were once so good at: the solid uninterrupted chunk, the afternoon in the park, the sleepless night (those sleepless nights, they were secretly the best). And no, I’m not going to be pedantic about WhatsApp and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Tinder and, dare I say it, cat videos.
And I won’t say your attention span has shortened or that your self-interest has lengthened or that the only way to deliver a story to you (I won’t say “content”, I hate that word) is through a listicle punctuated with memes and gifs (although, let’s face it, we all know you devotedly read every single listicle about Harry Potter).
No, it’s not the internet, it’s not the brevity of the microtext, and anyway, your attention span is fine, I know you also read The Order of the Phoenix in one sitting, and god knows it wasn’t all that pacey. No, the thing that has broken the unbrokenness of your former reading style is the volume, the expanse, it’s the needle in the goddamn haystack.
It all begins innocuously enough. There’s a long-form piece someone linked to (you’ve always liked the pieces this person links to): it’s one of those thoughtful essays, about the the waterways of some European nation, the soda taxes in a Latin American country, that sort of thing, the kind of writing that contextualises a familiar pain even as it is set in an unfamiliar landscape.
It’s framed in just the sort of language and rhetoric that engages you. It’s a seventy-minute read, the webpage helpfully informs you. That feels doable.
Only, it cites other pieces by linking to them. And you don’t feel like you’re being completely thorough unless you open each of these links in separate tabs, just to make sure you have all the background you really need in order to understand all the points this piece is making. And besides, this one’s only seventy minutes, and you’re used to reading for hours together.
Then, halfway through, the piece mentions the name of a book. It sounds clever and fun, and you feel like you’ve heard the name before. You should probably read the book. But maybe you should read a review first, you know, just to be certain. Sure enough, there’s a glowing review in a magazine you trust (and there aren’t that many that you trust these days, trust being such a strong word and all). But here’s the bigger question: is this a reviewer you should trust?
Maybe you should read a few reviews that the reviewer has written in the past, of books that you’ve read, just to see if your tastes clash. Oh, good. They don’t. Isn’t it wonderful that this reviewer too found that memoir self-indulgent even if poetically written, or that this reviewer too did not like the sequel to that other book that you both loved? Maybe you should reread that other book just to see if it’s as good as you remember it being.
But wait. There’s this book – you know, the one referenced in that article you paused at the thirty-five-minute mark, yeah, that one. Should you buy it? Maybe you should read two more reviews of the book, just to get a sense of what other reviewers think. Okay, mostly good things. Enough now. It’s time to take the plunge. And look, you can order it directly to your electronic reader.
So you do, guiltily glancing at the half-read long-form piece, the fourteen open tabs and that other book you started reading late last night when you couldn’t fall asleep. But this book! What a glorious opening paragraph. You settle right in. You read.
But what about…
And I know you, you’d never leave anything undone. At some point, you’ll return to that article (your browser will have kept the page scrolled down to that exact point where you stopped), and you’ll quickly skim through those open tabs and you’ll read at least three of them, and you’ll buy a few more books that reviewer liked, and maybe a few that she didn’t like, just to see, and you’ll read them too, because there’s nothing more judgmental than that fold on the book icon in your e-reader that says a book has never been opened.
And sure, your backlog will pile up, and there will be a stack of books by your bedside and under your table and in the corner of your sock drawer, and sure, someone will have linked to another great long-form piece by then that you will dutifully save to your read-it-later application, and you’ll get to that one too, I know you will.
Because here’s the clincher, here’s why you don’t read as much as you used to: it’s because, in fact, you read a lot more than you ever used to. When you think about it, that’s a whole other kind of wonderful.
Manasi Subramaniam works in publishing and is based in New Delhi.