After years of staring at Ulysses on my bookshelf, I finally decided to start reading the epic 800-something-page novel by James Joyce. Reading this book is an investment, especially since rumor has it that it’s a “difficult” work, one that doesn’t always make sense and is too language obsessed.
However, I really enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I like a challenge, and I’ve heard that the personal rewards of completing this book are really worth the effort. With that in mind, I pick up the book and say, “I trust you, Mr. Joyce.” And I also trust all the smart, creative people who have loved the book before me.
Otherwise, would I read this book? Even consider reading this book? Probably not.
On Tuesday, I published a post (“Attention Spam“) in which I claimed that writers, not the Internet, are the reason that readers have trouble focusing on digital content. After I committed to reading Ulysses, I realized how very true this is.
When Ulysses was first published in the United States, censorship issues caused quite a stir. The 1933 court case, “United States v. One Book Called Ulysses” drew a lot of attention to the book and the issue of free expression. Ulysses was not to be published in the US for more than a decade, but that only sparked readers’ interest. Travelers were smuggling copies of the book from France.
This was exciting. This made people want to read Ulysses. Would Joyce’s writing be tolerated if someone published it for the first time today? Published online? In blog format?
Joyce, at that point a controversial, lauded, and respected writer, had the luxury of not needing to cater too much to the reader. He could be an artist and experiment with language and form. Joyce knew that his audience trusted he would take them somewhere new, even if that destination was not initially clear to them. I’m sure the length and difficult level of his novels were the last things on readers’ minds.
One reason people have so much trouble paying attention to digitized content is because it’s updated so frequently. Writers and content are so numerous that readers don’t become married to any one writer or publication; they don’t develop trust and the confidence that what they will read will change them or help them learn something new. They don’t push themselves to a challenge that might be rewarding. Sadly, there may be no room for “challenging” or experimental writing on the Internet.
Nicholas Carr’s new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains“, is receiving a lot of attention and acclaim. Personally, I think Nicholas Carr’s writing is difficult and bore-inducing. How can Carr convince us, in an unfocused book, that we have no attention span?
Reviewer Darcy writes: “This incohesive book must have been written for the attention deficit victims of web browsing that Carr continuously talks about, because its limited information content should have taken the more appropriate form as two or three succinct blog posts.”
As long as we use the Internet as a publishing platform, writers need to recognize that they need to be as concise, specific, and reader-catering as possible. More writers are writing – and that can be a good thing! But writers shouldn’t expect to be worshiped like a Joyce or find patience among readers wanting the clearest, most concise writing possible.
(Photo by maxf)