Digital Book World, under a rather silly headline, has an interesting story about our reading habits. They report, in tones of gloom that users (which presumably means all users of media — i.e. almost everyone) spend 19 minutes every day reading. As they have already assured us that we amazingly spend 31 hours a day interacting with our media — the trick is apparently multi-tasking — that makes these 19 minutes magically turn into almost 25 minutes a day “devoted” to reading, though the reading may of course be accompanied by television watching, or e-mailing, or texting, or whatever at the same time. Even 19 minutes doesn’t sound Armageddonish to me — if the report is really true (and of course no one among us would really want to put too much weight on these numbers) this represents quite a bit of reading; much more than I’d have expected for your average American. The amazing number, to me, is more than five hours a day watching video — no wonder people find it hard to find time to exercise! The unusual feature of the piece is Mr Shoup’s non-apocalyptic tone: he answers his question, is this the end of publishing, thus: “The answer is, simply, no, because one thing has remained constant for humans over time: the desire for a great narrative.” His main aim is to examine what publishing can do to elbow more minutes out of competing media.
Now, nobody should pooh-pooh ideas about extending readership for our books. But we are not in any zero-sum race with other media formats. There will always be people who want to watch TV or play games rather than read a story, just as there are others (fewer I dare say) who’d rather do the opposite. And always have been. James I (IV of Scotland), a not altogether lousy poet, preferred to go a-hunting rather than to sit at home reading, well-read though he was. The success of the book publishing industry is not dependent on being bigger and better than any other media segment: we just need to be able to sell sufficient copies to cover our costs and yield enough margin for that to be an incentive to keep on doing so. This makes Mr Shoup’s worrying about how to make reading “relevant to today’s consumers” rather beside the point. As the population grows all the time, all we need to pray for is that the proportion of book readers in the population doesn’t decline. Personally I don’t see any reason to think that’s happening: it was never a huge proportion anyway.
Mr Shoup may be over-claiming though when he avers that “the revolution that occurred when Gutenberg invented the printing press . . . changed the way stories were told.” I believe that at the outset printers were pretty conservative, trying to mimic as closely as possible the “quality” perceived to exist in the manuscripts which had up until then been the norm. It didn’t change the way stories were told: it did change the way stories were distributed. Of course new literary genres were born and benefitted from printing’s ability to get them affordably into the hands of an increasing number of readers, but I really don’t think we could claim that, say, the novel was invented because of the printing press.