Daniel Berkowitz, senior editor of Digital Book World, has a blog post discussing what he sees as a decline in reader attention spans. Although his evidence is strictly anecdotal, it’s possible he may have a point. Berkowitz points to James Patterson’s new “Bookshots” novella-length books as evidence of his contention that people are turning to shorter forms of reading material, rather than devouring the more traditional novel-sized works. As a result, he thinks the nature of books is changing. Berkowitz writes:
This initiative—however good and noble I or anyone else thinks it might be—is a clear reflection of reading adapting to the times. Not as many people read as before, and for many people who do in fact read, they have neither the desire nor the time to read something lengthy, or to waste any time reading a book they may ultimately put down unfinished.
Patterson is far from the only person coming out with shorter works these days. Although Berkowitz doesn’t mention them, he could just as easily have pointed to the various serialization efforts that have popped up recently as further evidence for this trend: Farrar Straus and Giroux, Harlequin, The Pigeonhole, Serial Box, and so on. They’re all looking at dividing novels into shorter chunks so people can read them a little bit at a time. If Berkowitz’s supposition that attention spans are shrinking is correct, they should all do pretty well with this new idea. Even the Times piece on Patterson notes that “Many readers have already developed a taste for shorter digital works.”
Some people found it amusing when he quoted some authors suggesting that this means “the days of the Dickensian novel” are in the past—because, after all, Dickens himself serialized his novels. As one of the commenters to Berkowitz’s piece notes, back then people who wanted to read didn’t have the money to buy a whole book at once—but people who want to read now don’t have the time to read a whole book at once.
If it is true people are looking for shorter reads, this could tie in with the trend of using smartphones as e-readers more frequently, to get in bite-sized chunks of reading in available moments wherever one is. Perhaps bite-sized books are a good match for bite-sized reading? But as with any case built on anecdotal evidence, it still remains to be seen whether Berkowitz’s suppositions are accurate.