“TO read a novel is a difficult and complex art,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a 1925 essay, “How to Read a Book.” Today, with our powers of concentration atrophied by the staccato communication of the Internet and attention easily diverted to addictive entertainment on our phones and tablets, book-length reading is harder still.
It’s not just more difficult to find the time and focus that a book demands. Longstanding allies of the reader, professionals who have traditionally provided guidance for those picking up a book, are disappearing fast. The broad, inclusive conversation around interesting titles that such experts helped facilitate is likewise dissipating. Reading, always a solitary affair, is increasingly a lonely one.
Faced with a dizzying array of choices and receiving little by way of expert help in making selections, book buyers today are deciding to play it safe, opting to join either the ever-larger audiences for blockbusters or the minuscule readerships of a vast range of specialist titles. In this bifurcation, the mid-list, publishing’s experimental laboratory, is being abandoned.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader