Reading: the Struggle is the interesting title of a recent piece by Tim Parks on the New York Review of Books Blog. The "struggle" he refers to "is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial piece of fiction." I think we all know and have experienced what he is referring to in our contemporary era of constant email and text messaging, all the websites that are constantly updating us, etc - all made so easily (and temptingly) available to us literally everywhere, all the time now on our smartphones and other such devices.
Parks harks back to a time - not at all that long ago chronologically but already another world culturally - when reading was an activity that could be used to fill in long periods of otherwise unoccupied time. But now, he notes, "every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for." His premise is that interactive communications will always take precedence. "the mind, or at least my mind," he argues, "is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others."
But this is not just another lament about the way things are today as opposed to the way they were yesterday. He is actually concerned about what the shape of future fiction will look like. (He does not directly address non-fiction writing, but it too is affected by the same trends. Recently, I read a wonderful new biography of John Quincy Adams, but I would periodically get frustrated with the length of the chapters!)
His prediction of how future fiction will adapt to our technology-induced, increasingly ADD culture is simple: "The novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering frequent pauses where we can take time out."
Without frequent time-outs, we would have no alternative but to check our messages while reading - something my guess is that most of us have probably already done more times than we care to admit!