by Mark Bernstein
Are attention spans deteriorating? Forty years ago, the length of Marcel Ophüls' The Sorrow and The Pity (at 4 hours 11 minutes) or Andy Warhol's Empire (6 hours 36 minutes) was a sign of extreme seriousness. Today, popular entertainments are vastly longer. J. M. Straczynski's Babylon 5 was conceived as a single story told in more than 100 hours of film. Joss Whedon's Buffy, The Vampire Slayer is a coming of age story meant to be viewed over a period of seven years. Harry Potter comes in seven volumes, none of them short, and when the children have finished those, they enjoy Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and the 20 volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin stories. If our attention span grows short, one wonders where those mythic Victorians found time get anything done.
Technology does change the way we read. In time, the hypertext link -- that invaluable new punctuation popularized by the Web -- will transform everything. We've taken some important steps, but progress has been slower than I hoped. Electronic books have encouraged new kinds of illustration and interaction. (A great deal of nonsense is written about ebooks; for thoughtful analysis based on research, see Cathy Marshall's masterful Reading and Writing The Electronic Book).
For the moment, though, the great change is the transformation in how we get books and how books find us. Lamentations for the bookstore are the background music of our time, but the picture is far more complex.
Bookstores and their discontents are at the center of Jo Walton's stunning new novel, Among Others. It is the story of Morwenna Phelps, a Welsh girl who, having been crippled in a domestic accident in which her twin sister was killed and for which her mother may have been at fault, is sent to boarding school. She is very lonely, and finds refuge in reading. We hear about each book she reads and what she thinks of it. If you have read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, you'll have read these books too. You and Morwenna can compare notes.
Morwenna has a terrible time getting books. She reads everything in the school library, she reads everything in her uncle's study. On Saturdays, she's allowed to walk into the village where she haunts the small library and the indifferent bookstore. Finding a new book by a favorite writer takes enormous time and effort.
That used to be the way books worked. If you lived in a great city, you might have a great bookseller and that was a fine thing indeed. In Fargo or Abercwmboi, where Morwenna grew up, things might be dicier. Even great booksellers have real limits: Stuart Brent built a fabled Chicago store around literary fiction, art books, and psychoanalytic texts, but if you were looking for differential geometry or electronic design, that wasn't going to be much help.
Now, Internet booksellers make it easy to grab a book as soon as you hear about it. Electronic delivery can put the book onto your Kindle or iPad in moments. Browsing used book stores is great fun, but if you want a specific book that's out of print, Alibris and AbeBooks have no peer.
The second great change in the literary economy is short-run printing. The distinguishing fact of the literary economy is that books are numerous. You can't find a feature film about the lifestyle of lemurs or the Diels-Alder reaction, but there's no problem writing (or finding) books about them. To make a book, all you need is a year or two of hard work, some dozens or hundreds of readers, and a modest sum of money.
Short press runs reduce the necessary investment. With less at risk, specialized books can find their natural readers, and quirky and experimental works might find the right audience. Photographer Richard A. Chase just assembled a fascinating collection of photographs of Frankie, extending his earlier Web photo-essay. Chase pursues unusual subjects and normally works with huge prints and polyptychs. His photography doesn't always fit comfortably on the Web. His images aren't always easy to talk about, they don't fit nicely into a sales meeting pitch. That matters less, now: if you can find a way to let your audience know about your book, you don't need to squeeze it into every shop window from Albuquerque to Bergen.
Short press runs and electronic books are also ideal for specialized and technical publishing, such as Jeffrey Zeldmam's specialty press for digital designers, A Book Apart. Short runs also help keep books in print. When books were only visible while they were in store windows, a book had to find readers fast or it would vanish without a trace. Now, short runs and Internet delivery let publishers keep books around without unmanageable inventory costs. Short runs and Internet distribution also mean that books don't need to sit on the shelf, which might make it practical (for the first time in more than a century) to sell shorter work on its own. The most important part of a book need not be the its spine.
The business interests of publishers and booksellers would be better served if there were not quite so many books, if our attention could be focused more tightly on a few best sellers. Readers, on the other hand, benefit from access to a vast range of literature. The Internet helps with publicity and distribution, but can you discover the reading you need?
A first step, I think, is to think more carefully about what you ought to be reading. This requires knowing what you do read. I've kept book notes in Tinderbox for several years, which makes them easy to share and which opens the possibility for analyzing what I'm reading and thinking more systematically about what I might read. I keep separate lists of things I hear about that I might want to read. Short reviews, like the gems that Phoebe-Lou Adams wrote for The Atlantic for so many years, are a wonderful resource. Book blogs and commonplace books for the Web can be invaluable. The Times Literary Supplement talks about wonderful books of which I'd never hear. Laura Miller has been wildly wrong about hypertext, but yesterday she wrote about The Last Ringbearer, Kirill Yeskov's reimiagination of The Lord Of The Rings and its aftermath from the perspective of Mordor. It's a probe of the former Soviet Union and an examination of memory and of history, and if the rest of the book lives up to its opening chapters, much may be forgiven.