Monday, November 30, 2009

the multi-taskable book

Recently, while engaged in a weeding project, I noticed that if there were several books on a topic, the big, thick one -- even if the thick one was the most respected title about the subject, or even a well-known classic -- would be scheduled for withdrawal because it had not circulated in the past couple of years.

"Lazy kids," I thought. "They see research as work and just want to get it done as soon as possible."

What was more surprising was how many big, gorgeous, picture books were going unread.

Then I realized that I -- a nerd who likes to study in depth -- would probably reach first for the slim YA volume divided into short chapters with lots of pictures. And how many of the coffee table books I'd glanced at, intending to get to them someday, but never had time to read.

What both scholarly books and coffee-table books (if one is to truly escape into their literary worlds) have in common is that they demand a long block of undivided attention. And long blocks of undivided attention are as rare as saber-toothed tigers these days.

Blame it on ever-faster-moving visual media shortening our attention spans, or economic and social changes that leave people with fewer and drastically shorter blocks of free time, but many people don't have as many opportunities as they used to for sitting at a desk or with a book on their lap for long enough to really get into it.

Some of the lure of watching tv or surfing the net is the colorful blinkenlights. But also there's the fact that people can have the tv going and be doing something else. Those cute cat pics or that online video or the chat with a friend are just a browser tab-click away from the e-mail or document you must write. In short, not only are the rivals of books shiny and exciting, but they allow for multitasking.

O.k. So what can be done to make books more multitasking-friendly? (For now we'll ignore the trend toward 500+ page books and interminable series; those are on the other end of the spectrum, read by people who do have large blocks of free time.)

We already have audiobooks. These allow for hands-free "reading," but the problem is that many people (myself included) find it difficult to maintain auditory attention. I miss parts, and then find it hard to go back and fill in the gaps.

We have e-texts. It's nice that they can be opened in another window or browser tab and therefore be switched back and forth to and from, but not all have quick and easy ways of bookmarking one's place (some do). And many of the free ones (i.e., public domain) are from a time when long periods of concentration were taken for granted (e.g., Sir Walter Scott's paragraph-long sentences).

What's needed is built-in redundancy, the kind of that can be seen from the corner of one's eye and register in the subconscious.

So -- I forsee literature that, like t.v. shows, a reader can look away from multiple times and still keep track of the story or information. Perhaps books will adapt the magazine article layout in which a key concept is repeated in large, bold type in the center of each page.

Chapters should be clearly titled for easy access, and divided into short and well-titled subchapters. -- Shorter chunks for shorter attention spans. (This has actually been going on for some time. Contrast 19th century works with 20th century ones, and you'll notice that fiction from the 1920s on tends toward breaks of about the length of movie scenes.)

Mutitasking-friendly texts would also provide all online reading (or listening) with quick and easy (and perhaps even hands-free) pausing and bookmarking tools.

The format of literature has changed in the past, and it may have to change again, but it doesn't have to disappear. The written word is a tough, adaptable species.

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