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Lately, I've been noticing that my reading habits have changed, sometimes enormously if I look back a few years. Mainly that I've been reading less, but there have been a few other changes as well. I'll go over those in a moment, and speculate about a few of the possible reasons. Interestingly, I talked to some of the serious readers that I know, and I think I might be alone in this. Most people said that their tastes and reading habits haven't altered that much over the years, so my experience might be the outlier.

Age of Scarcity vs. Age of Excess

When I was growing up, it was really the age of scarcity. My school library had enough material for, say, two weeks of serious reading. The local library system had a much more respectable selection of books, but a) I couldn't get there often enough, and b) when I was there, the next problem was finding something good to read. The names of worthwhile authors were like pure gold, but no author ever wrote enough for me, and so the cycle always restarted. What to read? I suppose I could have talked to a librarian or something, but part of the reason for my excessive reading habits was shyness. Looking back now as a librarian myself, I'm a little baffled that no librarian ever thought to help me out. But nope, it was always blind luck or grasping onto a new author's selection of books like a drowning man.

Cue the Internet, and the age of excess. If I like a certain book, I have umpteen reliable ways of finding more books like it, some of them personal and somewhat fair, others commercial and refined to the last click of efficiency, but all relentlessly expanding my horizons. Even though I don't particularly want to anymore! I'm finding that the age of excess is just as problematic. Too many options, too much choice.

I wouldn't put myself in the camp of people concerned about how the Internet is destroying our brains. Naysayers have sung that chorus for the novel, radio, television, and so on. Every new form and every new revolution has its own challenges, and maybe it takes a generation to meet those challenges? I say that because, as I must confess, I'm having a little difficulty with this era. The issue is exacerbated by my typical approach, however: jump in headfirst, see what happens later. It's a sensible approach when you're living in the age of scarcity (oh hey, I've just discovered Roger Zelazny, I'll now read all his books), but drinking from the fire hose is a different proposition nowadays. The fire hose is as wide as every moment captured from every culture in the whole world, and a world full of people chattering about those moments.

I'm curious to see how things will shake out for the current generation of digital natives. As I just stated, I know that the mythology is that when you grow up with something, you're used to it, and it's a matter of the previous generation fading away, then the next generation getting into the next wave of changes, and etcetera. I end up thinking more about The Paradox of Choice than all the various doom-and-gloom books about the Internet: might there be a point where there is too much material, Internet or otherwise, for our poor human brains? One can hope that the tools to sort through this pile of material will arise in response to the problem, but I'm not seeing them yet.

In terms of my own reading habits, I feel like I now have more second-hand knowledge of books than first-hand. I'm not particularly comfortable with that. That kind of knowledge used to form a set of valuable clues for me on what to read next, but now I don't have even an illusory chance of catching up for myself.

(As a side note, I haven't seen too much evidence that tried-and-true artforms are changing yet, although I ran across an interesting article about David Simon's Treme. "There's this thing called Google," as he puts it, either changing his writing style in response to the Internet, or, perhaps more likely, justifying his already super-dense writing style).

Growing Up

This section is pretty short: tastes change, reading habits change, for the simple reason of growing up. When I was in my teens, I read about 40 or 50 books by Piers Anthony, and that was probably the age to do it. I'm not so interested in Anthony right now. He's still cranking out the books, and his ideal audience is still reading them. Fine, case closed.

Other things change in life too. Teens (hopefully) become confident adults, become working adults, become parents, and so on. I think about Anthony Burgess's oft-mutilated ending for A Clockwork Orange: Alex simply grows up. Thuggery is not so interesting to him anymore. I'm not drawing a parallel between reading and ultraviolence of course! But it's difficult to disentangle some of the gradual changes that happen over the years from these other criteria.

Trends in Publication

This one is fallout from my age of scarcity, since I was trained from an early age to follow an author across their career as a shortcut to finding "good books," whatever that might be. But what if that author changes? Most writers follow a groove once they find it, for basic commercial reasons, yet the field can change beneath their feet. I have a notion that horror is trendier than other genres, which is likely a mistaken idea—all the same, if I was a horror fan who loved everything except zombies or vampires, I feel like the last few years would have been frustrating ones.

Another example. Back in 2006, I finally noticed that momentum was switching to fantasy from SF, which might not have been news to anyone else. Since then, I would say that Le Guin's Lavinia or Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series would be my high points in reading fantasy. Le Guin is an atypical writer, since she's always written whatever the heck she likes, and through some strange magic (likely that mysterious force "hard work"), her novels appeal to fans both in and out of the genres she's currently writing in.

Misremembered Habits of the Past

What if I'm misremembering my old reading habits? This is one that's impossible to verify fully. In a piece for Strange Horizons a few years ago called "From the Formative Years," I talked about how I was really lucky with the authors that I read as a kid. But now that I'm looking back at my "re-read childhood favorites" project, I realize that there's a basic issue there: it's simply that I remember the favorites, and have certainly blocked out all the dreck I read. For every Patricia A. MacKillip or Robin McKinley, I probably read 10 or 12 other books that were forgettable or actively bad.

So one aspect of my sense that my reading habits have changed might simply be a function of the way memory works over time. I'm not necessarily in the silver age because there might not have been a golden age! In other words, my perception of a decline could be chalked up to nostalgia, a sense of impact from the first encounter with a book, or just a strained or declining memory. Alternately, I could posit that I am where I am today because of those forgettable items; that I could recognize MacKillip and McKinley as heads above the crowd because of my familiarity with the crowd. For those interested in the role of genre and/or series books in developing literacy, and becoming a "reader," check out some of the recent library research on genres of fiction or the excellent series of readers' advisory reference books from Libraries Unlimited. (I wish some of this had existed, or had been available to me, when I was younger!)

Audiobooks

Almost forgot to add this one! And it's likely the most pertinent one, now that I think about it. For the last four or five years, I've been listening to an audiobook every day while walking to and from work, adding up to a total of an hour and a half every workday. Before that, I had never really listened to audiobooks, and I find that it makes my brain feel strangely full. By rough estimation, I would say that I used to read at minimum an hour and a half every day, probably more, with much less of the same feeling of "Oh, I've had enough for the day" that I get from audiobooks. And by the differential between reading and listening speeds, I get less from an experience that takes longer. By "less" I'm referring rather mechanically to page count, since I think part of the overwhelmingness of the audiobook is that I usually retain more of the storyline and character and moments of description than I would from reading the same things.

So in a certain sense, I've just argued myself out of all the earlier blaming-of-the-Internet, since storytelling, in its oral version, greatly predates the written word!




James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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