Are we losing the magic of reading a novel?


Two weeks back, I sat down for dinner with an old friend. Over the last eight years, we’ve exchanged books and opinions. He sips into novels, flinging aside any that cannot capture his interest in the first 30 pages. I drink deeper. I remember just three books that I have put down without turning to the last page in over three hundred I’ve read.

Both of us had aspirations of writing a novel. He quit his job to try creative writing for a year. His creativity failed him that year, and he had to stumble back to corporate tedium, though in a technical writing position. My desire to write was waylaid by an almost relentless pursuit of immediate gain. Activity absorbed my time, leaving none for contemplation and ordering thoughts in my head.

I continued reading. Now, a lot of my reading, like writing, happens on the computer.

‘I still enjoy a good book,’ he said. I agreed.

Why is it that a book still lures us today?

For me, a book has been about the continuity that line after ordered line of print brings. I often think of railway tracks when I open a page. There is a predictability in the medium, leaving the engine of interpretation to chug along the content. By keeping the typeset, character spacing and grammar consistent, the book allows me to dive into the story without distraction, only to emerge a few hours later to breathe in reality again. With a good book, every other thing vanishes, and the only world that exists is the one that I interpret. The regularity of black on white is soothing. In a book, the author has to rely on language and construction for emphasis. The only leeway he is given is that of italics. But this very constraint makes me see colors, smell aromas and hear sounds in the world I am voyeur to. The starkness is pronounced; the impact is enhanced. I wonder what have I left behind in the world I was in. Will I by my reading alter the perception of the next person who picks up the book, however subtly and psychically?

I started reading articles on the internet in 2001. For sheer convenience, I jilted my first love of reading a book. It was so much easier to read on the computer. Emphasis was easier to discern. The author used different font sizes, or fonts even. Bold, italics, underline, and headings were added to his repository. And for a change, he could use color!

But the very adornments that made it easier to read on the computer jarred my eye. No longer was publishing about engrossing the reader. It was all about distraction – be it in the form of writing itself or the advertising accretions that grew like bad fungus on the wall. There were ways to scrape some of them away, yes, but even the method of expression had mutated. No one wrote or read long passages. Content had to be concise. Easy to skim. Short.

And of course, there was the all pervasive hyperlink. While I could earlier park my curiosity about a concept that an author was taking pains to build, I now found myself traversing side alleys of hyperlinks, often losing sight of the initial destination. Opening hyperlinks in the background was something I learnt quickly, but that meant that I my contemplation on what I read no longer ended with the article I was on. I found myself bundling my analysis built on comments strewn by earlier readers, who now had a persistant medium to alter the perception of the next reader.

‘How has the internet changed your reading habit?’ I asked him.

‘Less patience with novels,’ he replied. Yes. I could associate with that.

When I delve into a novel today, I try reading in fast forward mode, wishing that the author would rush along to the slated end so that I could put the novel aside and continue with other work. What used to be a pleasant diversion now turned to be another element that I had to reserve time for.

Time. The currency of today. I realized that the real inflation happened in the way I dealt with time now. No longer was it something I could lavish on people or activities I enjoyed. Time was becoming the cash I was buying my achievement with. And in the rush to purchase as much of achievement and influence with, I was losing out on factors that made time valuable. What an irony!

I wonder if I would be able to adjust to simpler times now. When I could spend hours doing nothing, and not feel guilty about it. Only time will tell.

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