Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting a grip on attention span

Last week I had an exchange with Steven Long, the proprietor of and a member of my on-line writing group. Earlier this month Steven posted Krakatoa Katy, a piece about the particular ways he is haunted by a Mighty Mouse cartoon released in 1945, called Krakatoa, and what that particular haunting suggests about what endures in memory.

I enjoyed reading Krakatoa Katy, but was bothered by an omission, an odd omission to my way of thinking, in its presentation. Though published on a website that is powered by Wordpress -- that is, the piece was published as a blog post, meant to be viewed in a web browser -- the author didn't include a link out to the cartoon that seeded his meditation. Not even to an article that would contextualize Mighty Mouse for readers who know little or nothing about the cartoon, or a link to the Mighty Mouse in Krakatoa entry on IMDB.

As readers of this blog know, I'm pretty liberal with hyperlinks. Not everyone will care, but readers might become curious about this or that reference, and the blogging medium -- hypertext -- lends itself to relatively painless slaking of that sort of curiosity. So, wondering about Steven's choice, I started a dialog in the post's comment thread. Steven wrote that he did think of including a URL to the cartoon on YouTube, "but ultimately decided it would be more of a distraction." I replied: "I suppose one could blog as a text-purist, but I think that in a hyperlinked medium it’s not so fitting — it’s almost inconsiderate? — to refer to linkable stuff without linking it."

We went on a little bit from there, and Steven did cough up the YouTube URL as soon as I asked for it -- but the core of our exchange is in those initial, short comments:

To what degree should a writer expect and attempt to control a reader's mode of engagement with her/his work; and to what degree does medium shape message?

These are some of the issues at the core of the tsunami of change sweeping the world of published text -- a.k.a. books -- in recent years.

One of the cozy things about books printed on paper and bound into a volume of pages is that they're wonderful vehicles for slipping into richly rendered worlds that are seeded by an author's imagination and craft, and brought to life by readers' imagination and experience. The medium is available to anyone able to read, and interesting to anyone who gets a kick out of participatory exploration of a world. A skilled author provides a rich framework for imagined experience, and a reader meets the experience partway, filling in a skein of image, gesture, smell, sound, taste, memory, and resonance that can be suggested by words, but not actually rendered. One could argue that books are the closest humans have gotten to the Vulcan mind-meld.

Blogs, tweets, links posted to Facebook, hyperlinked books published on web sites, and what people are imagining for internet-enabled reader devices like the iPad are a different story. In fact, they're a different form of story. What makes them different is that the medium itself enables readers to go traipsing off in directions that tickle their fancy, most often to other stories, perhaps in other media (e.g., from essay to cartoon). They might come back to a blog, tweet, Facebook page, web site, or e-published text once their fancy is satisfactorily tickled. And they might not.

The experience is no longer one between an author and a reader; or even between author, reader, and a background murmur of secondary criticism, interpretation, and scholarship -- the way, that is, one might read scripture, Homer, Shakespeare, or Joyce. Instead, it's a reader's world. The reader sticks with an author (or cartoon producer, or ...) until curiosity or whimsy or boredom sends her attentions elsewhere. She can stick with the author's presentation all the way through, or easily explore the byways.

I love reading books, and writing long-form fiction really floats my boat. The deep synergy between author and reader, and the satisfactions of deeply imagined and considered idea and emotion that arise from reading texts with engaged attention have yielded some of my life's richest pleasures. I don't think I'd trade a bookish mode of reading for anything.

At the same time, I read and write and surf hyperlinked-space too, and get a great deal from it. One thing leads to another, in ways that constantly surprise and educate me.

So it was interesting to see in a post -- Steven's Krakatoa Katy -- a piece that I might have been happy to read as plain old text in a magazine or a book, but that seemed somehow off when it was presented in a hyperlinked medium because it failed to take advantage of that medium to ease a reader's path to its referenced subjects or antecedents.

In last week's New Yorker, Richard Powers published a short story titled "To the Measures Fall." It's a romp through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, through the prism of an obscure novel by an obscure British author (fictional fiction) -- the title of the story is the title of this made-up book. The story is its narrator's account of her personal, romantic, and academic attachment to the Wentworth novel from age 21 until the brink of death. In the course of framing her life in terms of this object of obsessive attention, Powers' unnamed narrator describes the rise of the internet: "Overnight, the World Wide Web weaves tightly around you. A novelty at first, then invaluable, then life support, then heroin. [...] Your online hours must come from somewhere, and it isn't from your TV viewing. [...] The last print newspapers head toward extinction. More words get posted in five years than were published in all previous history. [...] Name the book that best captures life as now lived."

We're living that story now. What hypertext does to bookish reading is a history unfolding even as I type.

And, of course, there are a raft of judgments one might make about the value of bookish reading vs. hyperlinked reading, and the trends in so-called content consumption that follow the evolution of technology. Many have made such judgments, and some have changed their minds about those judgments as time and technology move along. If you use a search engine and follow the links you can find new judgments every day, in every corner of every venue of content creation.

I'm going to steer clear of that swamp in this post. But feel free to sound off in the comments!

Thanks to Knut Nærum, Øystein Backe, Rune Gokstad and the Norwegian Broadcasting show Øystein og meg for "Medieval Helpdesk" (2001).

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