Attention deficit, ebooks and the iPad

What’s the most important finite, non-renewable commodity in the world as far as an author is concerned?

As far as this author is concerned it’s time. The amount of time someone has to spend reading. And by reading I mean reading books – immersing themselves in other worlds and possibly other universes created from the mind of an author. I don’t mean Facebook and Twitter feeds.

It’s never been a large number, but the proliferation of technology is chipping away at it the whole time. It’s harder and harder to get people’s attention. Even in the pub. I have friends who will continue checking their Blackberry or iPhone during the course of a conversation. These days I’ve got a strict policy – if you start checking email mid-conversation, I stop talking. I know I’m old fashioned but I don’t care. If I’ve made time to meet someone to catch up, they’d better damned well listen when I have something to say.

Why does attention deficit mean so much to me? Simple maths. If the average adult has time in his or her reading life to read, for argument’s sake, 1000 novels, I want my novel to be one of those novels. If the number shrinks to, say 800 novels, I worry that my novel will be one of those that suffers.

What I really worry about is the disappearance of the form completely. People are becoming used to multi-tasking: checking their email and surfing the internet while they watch tv; texting and messaging while they’re at the movies. Nothing commands their undivided attention any more – not even a play or a movie. How the hell can a book compete?

Into this landscape, Apple tosses its iPad – a device which at least one publishing industry CEO believes will revolutionize the book. Of course he’s talking about the book in the wider context – non-fiction works like travel guides and text books. But I fear he’s also got his targets fixed on the novel. Which would, in my humble opinion, be a mistake.

We’ve already had this debate. I can remember sitting at a restaurant in Cannes during the multimedia show in 1995 debating the place of interactivity in the novel. My argument was (and remains) quite simple. A novel’s job (the author’s job) is to take us on a journey. Sometimes he or she is going to want to take us places we don’t want to go: painful places. Places we would much rather avoid, given the choice.

Also, surprising places. Delightful places. Places we never imagined existed. Somebody else imagined them, and the novel is the place where we get to explore those other universes of the mind.

Why would we want to give that up? Why would we want to take the reins from the hands of authors who have mastered the art of driving the plot, and try to drive ourselves? Just because we can? And where will we go? Most likely we’ll take the safe option – the option which challenges us the least. It’s highly unlikely to surprise us because we know it all too well.

There are already enough things in the world distracting readers from books. The last thing we should be trying to do is distract readers away from a book when we actually have their attention.

But won’t the interactive features make the book more immersive? I don’t deny that an integrated dictionary, encyclopaedia and other reference works might help readers as they read (although I have a Kindle, which has an integrated dictionary, but I still prefer my own). I recently read Wolf Hall, and found myself jumping up to check the historical references on my computer at several points as the plot unfolded.

Still, any interruption in the story telling risks losing the reader’s interest. It’s hard enough to get it in the first place. Let’s not throw it away when we do have it.

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