We live in the age of speed. Everything needs to be fast, from the cup of coffee we get from the drive-through window, to the loading of our favorite websites, to our response time to every email, text message, and social media ping. As technology accelerates, it drags the microprocessors inside our skulls with it, conditioning us to think faster is always better. It’s no wonder we’ve come to expect our stories to move fast as well.
Don’t want to sit on pins and needles through commercials to find out what will happen next on your favorite show? Record it and fast-forward right through those suckers. Don’t want to wait week after week for a TV series to reach its conclusion? Watch something else while you wait for all the episodes to become available (or are dropped at once on streaming services) and binge-watch to your heart’s content. Our brains adapt very quickly to the rewards of story NOW, as services like Amazon and Netflix well know. It’s no accident that the next episode in a series starts playing on your TV within seconds of the end of the installment you just watched.
Which brings us to the favorite story delivery system of many of us on this blog: books. Finding a quick read is no longer the occasional pursuit to break up the reading experience of longer, more complex stories; it’s now the gold standard. You don’t have to go to Victorian-era tomes to see how much books have changed. You need only pick up one of your favorite book from the 80s or 90s (that’s 1980s or ’90s) to see how it compares to modern fare.
This is not one of those ‘get off my lawn, you young whippersnappers’ posts. I’m not here to lament the death of Dickensian novels (seriously, English teachers, how many of Dicken’s books did we really need to read?). As human society evolves and changes, so too must the stories that describe and decipher it. And if we want reading as a pastime to survive – and I think most of us do – it has to adapt to meet the needs of modern-day readers. That adaptation has taken the form of everything from eschewing backstory, diminishing story length/word count, and eliminating as much punctuation (not just Oxford commas, but all sorts of commas, for example) as possible. A few weeks ago, I read three books that each took less than four hours to complete (I’m a fast reader, but still!), and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them.
After that week of quick reads, I spent nearly two weeks of reading time to get through the next two books on my TBR pile, a different experience indeed. First up was a mystery, The Lake House, by Kate Morton. Not only did it include more description than normally suits my taste, it criss-crossed multiple narrators in different timelines, and I had to purposely slow down my reading to process it all and keep everyone and everything straight. It didn’t realize how long it had been since a book had made me do that until I found myself wanting to walk away from it after the first few nights, despite being intrigued by the premise and characters. I glad I stuck with it, because once I got past page 80 of this 400+-page book, I was totally immersed. Coming back to it each night was like sinking into a warm, welcoming bath. Reading it felt luxurious.
Next was a bit of a faster read, but Julie Cohen’s Together, with its regressive timelines and criss-crossing character secrets still required me to take it slower and pay more attention. I did figure out the two big secrets early in the book, but despite knowing the ‘what’, I kept reading to find out the ‘how’ and, most importantly, the ‘why’.
I can’t ponder my approach to reading and reactions to stories without considering how it impacts my approach to writing. I have to admit, in this age of speed, I tend to write punchier prose and shorter stories. Never a fan of extensive description, perhaps this pace even suits me more than pacing norms of days past. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of pressure on writers these days to produce content at an ever-increasing speed, whether you’re traditionally published and being told by your publisher you need to write more than a book a year, or you’re self published and are inundated with the advice that the way to build an audience is to put out new content at the fastest pace you can, preferably several books per year.
It’s important to have a reality check every now and then and to remember there are many roads to Oz. Faster isn’t always better, whether it’s reading or writing. I’m working at my maximum speed right now, and for the foreseeable future, but that’s not to say I don’t have a few stories that are more layered, intricate, and time-consuming roaming the wilds of my subconscious. I’m not ready to write any of them yet, though. A few aren’t ‘baked’ enough, and frankly might be above my current skill level. A few others will have to wait due to a more mundane reason: there are other stories – faster, easier, more commercial stories – ahead of them in the queue.
While I keep up my writing pace, I am going to luxuriate a bit longer at my slower reading speed. Coming up on my reading list are another Kate Morton mystery, a re-read of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, and potentially Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove.
What’s on your reading list right now? Are you racing through fast-paced page-turners? Reveling in complex storylines? Something in between?