I’ve discussed my relationship with reading many times on this blog. It’s the skill I’m most eager to improve day-in, day-out. It’s something that’s absolutely fundamental to the way I live, for the simple reason that healthy reading has a ripple effect that improves every other aspect of my life. My improved mental well-being, productivity, creativity, and my growing appetite for vivid experiences, all started with my renewed commitment to reading. It was the first block, and the foundation upon which all others were built. This blog, my novel, my increased sense of happiness, would not exist without my initial commitment to regular reading. In many ways it’s like exercise- something that I make time for, that changes every aspect of my life for the better. All I can say is how this process has worked for me, and I’m aware that reading means different things to different people.
Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a little reading experiment aimed at exploring how other people read and what reading means to different people of the same generation as me. The fact that we were all born into an increasingly digital world is an important point, and is why I decided to focus the attention of my study on young folks. I gathered five willing volunteers, who would each read one of my favorite short stories, and whom I would then interview about the experience. I wasn’t sure if this research would yield anything of any worth, but the results have proved more interesting than I could have ever hoped.
Even though I love books, I’m not necessarily a brilliant reader. People tend to associate books with intelligence, and as someone that enjoys reading, I’ve found that non-readers often think of me as being hardwired differently. But the truth is, as this research shows, that we actually have more in common than we realized. Reading is very much a craft that one can improve through time and dedication. Like anything in life, there are those naturally suited to it, but that doesn’t mean that the joy of reading is or should be exclusive to them. I don’t consider myself such a natural at all; if anything I’m a just a keen reader. I’m a very slow reader, I’m an anxious reader, and haven’t always been this keen. I assured my volunteers that this little experiment was not a measure of their intelligence, but rather a study of the medium of reading. I was quick to point out that each of them consumed various forms of media, and stressed that the only difference between me and the non-reader is a preference of mediums.
My five volunteers are all from the North Somerset area of England, are male, and between the ages of 23-26. They are each talented and quirky in their own way, representing a range of interests and abilities. Some are scientifically inclined, some are more philosophical, and others still are intrigued by everything from fitness to technology. For the purposes of this experiment, their names will remain private. I figured calling them “Test Subject A” or “Test Subject B”, while amusing, would make it hard for you to distinguish a particular candidate. So I’ve gone ahead and given them nicknames. Here are the interviews:
Q1: HOW OFTEN DO YOU READ?
HUNTER: Books? Never. I used to read textbooks…
COWBOY: I don’t read books, but I consume newspapers often.
SPACEMAN: I listen to audiobooks almost every day, both fiction and non-fiction. As far as printed books go, I’d say I read at least one novel per year.
WISEGUY: I read fiction books daily, perhaps 30 minutes a day.
Q2: DID YOU ENJOY READING AT SCHOOL?
HUNTER: Not overly. We read Old Man and the Sea…that was alright I suppose.
SPACEMAN: It wasn’t my favorite activity, but I didn’t mind it. It was okay.
WISEGUY: Not at all.
Q3: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BOOK?
HUNTER: The Railway Cat – Arkle Phyllis
FROSTY: The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
COWBOY: A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket
SPACEMAN: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
WISEGUY: Supernatural: Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – Graham Hancock
Q4: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU READ A SHORT STORY?
HUNTER: About four months ago actually. Remember that collection we had to read in school called Opening Worlds: Short Stories from Different Cultures by OCR? I found it and started reading.
FROSTY: I love reading Creepypastas online actually. A while back I read one about a sleep deprivation experiment.
COWBOY: I’m not sure to be honest.
SPACEMAN: One of yours actually. Remember that story about the automated wind farm on an alien planet that you asked me to proof for you last year?
WISEGUY: You know, this might be the first one.
Q5: DID YOU ENJOY TEN INDIANS?
HUNTER: Yeah it was alright, that. It was uneventful and it wasn’t clear what the meaning was, but that’s not a bad thing.
FROSTY: Nope. I found it a struggle to take in. I think I’m much more visually-oriented. I was reading the words but I couldn’t digest them.
COWBOY: No. There was nothing engaging about it. Maybe if it was longer, and more stuff happened in it, I might have enjoyed it. It was brief and boring.
SPACEMAN: Yes. I liked trying to figure out the meaning, which isn’t really revealed until the end.
WISEGUY: Well, it didn’t blow me away. It was OK, but it felt like a chapter of a longer story.
Q6: DID IT MAKE YOU WANT TO READ MORE HEMINGWAY?
FROSTY: Probably not. I hated Old Man and the Sea at school.
COWBOY: Not particularly.
SPACEMAN: Yes, absolutely.
WISEGUY: Not especially. I’m into different genres of fiction, mate.
Q7: IN A GENERAL SENSE, DO YOU WANT TO READ MORE?
FROSTY: Yes. Even though I find reading a struggle, I have a copy of Stephen King’s It upstairs, and it makes me want to improve my reading ability.
COWBOY: Yes- but not because of this story.
WISEGUY: Yes. A lot more.
Q8: WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HEMINGWAY’S WRITING STYLE?
HUNTER: Yeah mate, it was alright. However I didn’t get the tone of some sentences- probably because it was written in a strange dialect.
FROSTY: Well, I dunno about the style, but I did like print. The font was pretty friendly. There were a few regional words I didn’t recognize, like “squaw”.
COWBOY: No. Me- I like a definitive beginning, middle, and end. I just wasn’t sure where this story was going. It’s like it wasn’t long enough to hook me.
SPACEMAN: Oh yes. I liked the ending in particular.
WISEGUY: Yeah. His straightforward style made the story accessible and friendly to me as a reader.
Q9: DID YOU READ IT ALL IN ONE GO?
Q10: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU?
HUNTER: 17 minutes.
FROSTY: 10 minutes.
COWBOY: 10 minutes.
SPACEMAN: 7 minutes. After I was done, I went back and re-read some sections near the beginning to gain a better understanding of the story as a whole.
WISEGUY: 25 minutes.
Q11: WHERE DID YOU READ IT?
HUNTER: In a computer chair at my desk.
FROSTY: On a couch in a quiet room.
COWBOY: On a couch in a room shared with three guys quietly playing Minecraft.
SPACEMAN: In a leather armchair. The TV was on, but I muted it.
WISEGUY: On a couch in a café with noisy, annoying distractions. Make sure you include that detail.
Q12: WERE YOU IMMERSED IN THE WORLD OF THE STORY, OR DID YOUR MIND WANDER?
HUNTER: Mostly I was immersed. My focus shifted a few times and I had to go back and concentrate again.
FROSTY: Oh, it wandered alright. I had to re-read a few lines I wasn’t sure about. Overall it was just very hard to process the events and meaning of the story for me.
COWBOY: Immersed makes it sound like I was enjoying it. I wasn’t. I read it the way I read the news. Not fun, but no real effort either.
SPACEMAN: It took a while to get into at first, probably because I knew I was taking part in an experiment instead of reading normally.
WISEGUY: Remember, I was very distracted by external noises. However I want to say that I liked the subtlety of his story. I think that kind of subtlety suits the concise medium of short fiction.
Q13: IN A WORD, WHAT DO YOU THINK THE STORY WAS ABOUT?
COWBOY: A Journey.
SPACEMAN: Love. Specifically “first love”. The line that stood out to me was that he was “hollow but happy”. I quite liked that I did.
Q14: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR BIGGEST REASON FOR NOT READING IN YOUR LIFE?
HUNTER: Can’t be arsed. It seems like an effort.
FROSTY: Because it’s boring. It seems like a task instead of a pastime. This experiment felt like homework. However I’m hopeful. Perhaps I just haven’t found my genre of fiction yet. I didn’t like this story, but I guess it’s like the movies- there’s so much choice that there has to be one for everyone.
COWBOY: I’d say my answer is probably true for a lot of people of our generation, so think of this as not just my reason, but mine and so many others. Alternative forms of media. Things like video games and TV are so much more accessible. But the biggest one reason, in my opinion, is my phone. I take my phone to bed and the time I spend on it before going to sleep is probably the time I would otherwise be spending reading, if I were into books.
SPACEMAN: I just consume other forms of media so much. The big three for me are video games, Netflix, and Youtube.
WISEGUY: I get put off reading. Because I’m so slow, reading seems like this big task, and I end up procrastinating and not reading as much as I would like.
Q15: DO YOU TEND TO READ NON-FICTION FASTER?
HUNTER: I haven’t noticed a discernable difference.
FROSTY: O yes.
COWBOY: Absolutely. For me, the dialogue present in fiction breaks up my flow. I definitely read articles and news columns faster.
SPACEMAN: Yeah actually, I do read it faster.
WISEGUY: No. I read works of fiction faster. With non-fiction, I feel the pressure to remember facts.
As you can see from their answers, each of my volunteers has a completely different relationship with books. There are aspects of each person’s experience that hold true for me as well. What COWBOY and SPACEMAN said about the accessibility of digital media was very interesting to me, and I think it’s something that probably holds true for a lot of Millenials, whether they are readers or non-readers. I know the big reading slumps I have had in the past had a lot to do with my pouring hours into addictive games like The Witcher 3 or Bioshock Infinite. Games, movies, and binge-worthy TV shows all tell fascinating stories, only they are passive activities as opposed to sitting down and reading a novel, which is active. We’re all interested in storytelling and we always will be. It’s the medium that is changing- with increasingly sophisticated technology designed to be as comfortable and accessible as possible. You have to remember, just 100 years ago, sitting down to read just one more chapter of Great Expectations was the equivalent of hitting the “Continue watching” button after your third straight episode of Mindhunter. In 1841 American fans of Charles Dickens were so desperate to find out if Nell had survived in The Old Curiosity Shop, that they caused a riot and stormed the harbor in New York where a ship was bringing in the latest chapter of the book.
So are novels disappearing as a storytelling medium? No, I don’t think so. But they might become more of a niche interest. And it must be remembered that the volunteers I selected represented a pretty homogenous demographic. It would be interesting to carry out this experiment with strictly female volunteers, or volunteers from America instead of the U.K. What do you think of my results? Should I carry out more of these experiments? Can you relate to any of the answers my wonderful volunteers gave? Please let me know in the comments!