“Why We Read”

A skeleton key is created by eliminating certain ridges and notches. By stripping the key down so it fits only one of many necessary patterns, it becomes more universal. Similarly, tapping into universality is how a storyteller invites a wide readership. If extreme care is given to the right aspects of a story, it can adapt to varied sensibilities.

So here’s a riddle: What good is adaptability and power, even universality, if no one reads the story?  

It seems a widespread belief that attention spans are getting shorter and we’re all heading toward a more technical-assisted, fast-paced lifestyle with less ideal conditions for reading.  I hear such assertions often, especially at work. Part of my job is speaking with marketing professionals about how they attract customers and get people to understand the value of a product or service. I have stopped counting the number of times someone has said something along the lines of, “People don’t read anymore, so we’re <insert strategy here>,” in defense of a new initiative. Does this mean people don’t read books, or people don’t read advertisements? Are our attention spans really that short? Have you stopped reading this?

Saying people don’t read at all is an exaggeration. Nonetheless, businesses are investing heavily to adjust to dwindling attention spans because they have studies to show that people are overstimulated and easily distracted. Engagement is the goal of these professionals. But it is also the goal of creative writers. We write for ourselves, sure, and this is a lovely sentiment, but if there are to be no readers we might as well follow up our endeavors with a ceremonial bonfire.

As of today, at least, I can emphatically say that people still read creative writing. I know because I read. And, I have evidence that others read. I conducted a poll (okay, posted a question on my Facebook page) in which an unbiased sample of people (okay, my friends, many of whom are writers) were asked how their reading habits have changed over the last few years. The answers varied. Responses ranged from, “What’s reading? I didn’t even fully read this post,” to “I read more than ever. Reading is like a drug, and I snort that shit.” In the end, most of those polled (maybe twenty people total), said they read more than ever.

Margaret Atwood recently became the first contributor to the Future Library project, in which a different author will contribute an unpublished work each year until the final collection is released in 2114. The very concept of this project is thrilling; it’s an all-chips-on-the-table move, a bet that not only will we read in a hundred years, we will be reading works whose momentum has built for a century.   

So, as businesses are turning to infographics, which define a concept or message with images and abridged text because (as one infographic I read states, 87% of people would rather read content on a snazzy infographic than get information from text alone), individuals—at least creative individuals (at least twenty creative individuals in my general age group)—are reading, and reading more.

Attention spans may be down in some respects, and the internet—that pesky, busy and often-loud online marketplace—is likely to blame, yet we have eReaders now, from which we can store massive digital libraries or travel without causing shoulder strain from the weight of the books we bought on vacation. We are buying books and literary magazines, and we are writing. In fact, in times of shortening attention, there are more writers than ever. The convenience of electronic access to millions of stories has opened up new worlds to readers and writers that were once limited due to mobility, bookstore locations, and library availability.  

Visual, quick-takeaway images are perhaps the future of how we read business messages, and I think hybrid forms of reading may lead to fun experimentation in electronic literature, but I do not see an end to plain old text. Here’s the thing: Imagination is sparked by reading in a way that no infographic could mimic.

Stories are not flashy and attention-seeking at first glance, and they are not loud. But they invite real engagement. Visual representations of storytelling will always have a place, and perhaps take a larger share of our entertainment in certain contexts, but hybrid forms of storytelling come with complex designs that do part of the imagination’s job. There remains real value to plain old stories, text-to-page or even text-to-electronic device, because they spark in the reader something unique and precious. By stripping storytelling down to its essence, it becomes adaptable to the reader’s interpretation and imagination. So, yes, I believe people will continue to read in this fast-paced, in-your-face digital world; in fact, settling in with a good story just might be more precious and necessary than ever before.

Jen Knox

About Jen Knox

Jen Knox is the author of After the Gazebo, a collection of short fiction. Her writing can be found in The Adirondack Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gargoyle Magazine, Istanbul Review, Narrative Magazine, Room Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, among others. Jen directs the Writers-in-Communities Program at Gemini Ink and works as a freelance writing coach. For more about Jen, find her here: www.jenknox.com