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September 15, 2006

Reading is Hard!

Tyler Cowen wonders why we consume movies in single session, but stretch books out over many. I'll stick with hypotheses 2 and 4 (books are much longer and we don't like reading enough to sustain focus), and pose another question: Slightly contrary to Cowen's assumption, I can polish off fiction at a pretty absurd clip, and read it for hours on end. Nonfiction, however...that's another story. I've got an outer limit of 40 minute sessions, and that's on books I like. Meanwhile, where I'll speed through fiction, I comparatively crawl through its less fantastic cousin.

But why is that? It's not that I'm uninterested, or incapable of comprehending. I don't find the reading taxing, or dull. And my motivation when reading nonfiction, and excitement about the payoff, is certainly greater. Yet I move at a fourth the speed, and can't seem to hold focus for sustained periods of time -- which is a real frustration, as after five or six sessions, it's hard to really want to continue with the same book anymore. I'd love to be one of those people who sits down with a serious book and gets up three hours later, erudite and self-satisfied. Sadly, if I'm only getting out of the chair three hours later, it's almost certainly because I fell asleep.

September 15, 2006 | Permalink


It's not that I'm uninterested, or incapable of comprehending. I don't find the reading taxing, or dull. And my motivation when reading nonfiction, and excitement about the payoff, is certainly greater.

Something in the above sentences could be untrue without you being aware that it's untrue. I'd guess that you're wrong on "taxing" (because often non-fiction is dense in a way that fiction isn't) and "dull" (same reason).

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Sep 15, 2006 11:02:23 AM

I spent too much time reading High-Lit and now am too slow when reading anything. Well...I can skim newspaper articles and blogposts (keywords), but as an example someone recommended Jack Spicer to me and after I had spent an hour on a 20 line poem I knew I didn't have the time to do him justice.

I reread as I read. I think as I read. If there is ideational content I just have to feel satisfied with every paragraph, and that I have connected paragraphs to previous paragraphs, etc.

I will reread your post after writing this, I read most posts and comments 3+ times.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 15, 2006 11:10:32 AM

I also spent years reading Chess games without a board.

I also consider any movie worth watching worth watching ten times, and usually do.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 15, 2006 11:13:57 AM

Sheesh bob. I also read the blog posts here several times, both before and after commenting, even if I don't. But watching movies 10 times? No thanks.

This does make me feel better. I've had to live with the cognitive dissonance of all the books that I absolutely love but won't finish because they're too boring. The cognitive dissonance is still there, but at least I'm not alone.

Posted by: Stephen | Sep 15, 2006 11:16:55 AM

I read fiction very fast - all kinds from Toni Morrison to Terry Pratchett. Because I'm doing it for pure pleasure and escapist entertainment. I'm not trying to remember it or work through a coherant response. If you read for academic purposes, gathering info, building a case, trying to sort out intelligent responses, considering what is true and what is not true. Mostly trying to remember, taking notes, putting in post-its, its simply a lot more taxing. It's work, enjoyable work, but work even so.

Posted by: cathy | Sep 15, 2006 11:29:24 AM

Many non-fiction books have way too much filler. They say the same thing several different ways. They would be more effective edited down to essays or pamphlets. Do publishers pay by word count or something? Also, there are too few really good non-fiction writers so it can be like work reading them.

Posted by: Emma Zahn | Sep 15, 2006 11:36:40 AM

I don't know, I "stretch" them out over a few sessions because an average novel takes several hours to read and I rarely have that large a block of time to consume them. Occasionaly I suck them down in one setting - but only if I have the time. Usually I am reading 2-3 novels and 1-2 non-fiction books at any given time - I like to have options when I sit down to read - so it sometimes takes a while for me to get through books.

I have to say though, that I often watch movies in more than one setting. Watching the tee vee for more than an hour at a time or in a given day, just doesn't work well for me. Even on the rare occasions watching more doesn't make my head hurt - I just feel like I'm wasting my damn time. Novels are a much prefered diversion as I get to create the panorama that backs what I am enjoying - I generaly prefer what I make up to go with the story over what Hollywood provides.

Posted by: DuWayne | Sep 15, 2006 11:37:10 AM

I would just like to point out that I am not the Cyrus who commented on that thread. No, I have no real point in this, but it's such a rare name that I've never met another in person and I'm shocked when I see it not attached to me.

I used to read like it sounds like you do, except I read less nonfiction. Now, not so much. Sometimes I worry or feel guilty about it, but hey, there's a big difference between "not reading" and "not reading as many new novels". In my case I think the drop has two main causes: the busier and more rigid schedule of the nine-to-five I've had for about a year now, and World of Warcraft.

Also, I think Phil touches on it in that comment thread: it's easier to read "in between" other stuff. The average movie-viewing apparatus (TV, computer, whatever) is several hundred dollars at least and too heavy to carry, and the VHS/DVD you're watching on it is more expensive than most books (paperbacks compared to reasonably popular DVDs, at least). Only one of these can easily fit in a briefcase or backpack or car seat or whatever. It feels more normal to compartmentalize books partly because for most books, most of the time, it's far easier.

Posted by: Cyrus | Sep 15, 2006 11:40:29 AM

I've noticed the same thing about myself, but I wouldn't put the dividing line between nonfiction and fiction. If I'm reading nonfiction about some hobby of mine, I can go at it for hours at a time. There are a number of people who hardly read at all yet pore over the sports pages (and they're not just skimming -- they focus on boring stats and remember things).

Maybe the difference is between work and play. (I wonder if people who are very serious about fiction experience the same thing. Do they find Ulysses slow going despite the fact that it gives them great pleasure and race through trashy novels?)

I also think wonkish people feel a certain sense of responsibility when confronted with something that purports to be about REALITY. There must be some psychic overhead involved in having one's true/untrue, consistency and other filters turned on.

Posted by: gary | Sep 15, 2006 11:43:56 AM

My father, the engineer, was unable to read for pleasure for years because he approached everything like an electrical engineering text: every detail mattered, would need to be related to other details, and there will be a test.

I think there should be a distinction made between "entertainment" nonfiction and "heavy" nonfiction. I tore through most of "Prisoner of Trebekistan" in a mammoth four-hour session, but it's a memoir and thus a lot closer to Stephen King than Stephen Hawking. I...really haven't read any heavy nonfiction in ages. There may be a reason for this, namely that I'm lazy.

Posted by: Kylroy | Sep 15, 2006 11:48:06 AM

The human mind, evidently, was "designed" for dramatic narrative, and is easily addicted to dramatic narrative, which it processes very easily and rapidly.

Mechanical analysis of how the world works is only an analogue for dramatic narrative. We can do analysis, and the fact that we can do it, is a by-product of our capacity for dramatic narrative, but one thing is not the other. The difference is the difference between magic and science, between astrology and astronomy, between alchemy and chemistry.

In dramatic narrative, the hero inhabits a world of forces and meanings beyond his full comprehension and confronts a challenge and overcomes (or succumbs to) the challenge in a moment of climactic insight. One thing follows another in a dramatic narrative, but with foreshadowing and anticipation. The "cause-and-effect" of narratives is almost infinitely elastic, encompassing and excluding all kinds of factors and conditions. The ancients would satisfy their need for foreshadowing by reading the omens and projecting the light and dark forces of human nature onto the gods.

The analytic insights of science can possess an elegance of compression, but the recognition that a process is a system -- a machine, if you will -- does not reward the human brain in the same way as dramatic narrative. That the human capacity for dramatic narrative, in which the intellect integrates on the mammal's emotional and limbic systems into a sense of meaning and purpose, also opens the door to understanding the mechanics of the world, was a lucky development in human evolution. The rewards of analytical elegance and real knowledge are a low calorie treat, sweet, perhaps, but not comfort food. Facts, however interesting, feel like trivia outside of a dramatic narrative.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Sep 15, 2006 12:17:14 PM

I can't sit still that long. That's basically why I never read entire books in a sitting. Of any sort. Novels take me longer, but I was an lit major and I have to sit and think about everything the writer's doing every few pages.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Sep 15, 2006 12:23:13 PM

My going theory on this is the strong version of (2), and I think it makes most sense to phrase it as a scheduling problem: while I have been known to watch tv series on dvd straight through, it's rare that I can get that kind of time. Similarly, it's hard to schedule a one-go reading session for a book that might otherwise take eight hours. Two hours for a movie, though, is very findable in an average week.

Posted by: Dennis | Sep 15, 2006 12:47:07 PM

"Facts, however interesting, feel like trivia outside of a dramatic narrative."

I like this a lot. Great comment. Think on it, folks.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 15, 2006 1:06:46 PM

Tyler Cowen wonders why we consume movies in single session, but stretch books out over many.

Well, the novel spent most of its life as a serial form, published either in volumes or in issues. The recent BBC adaptation of Bleak House tipped the hat to the serial form, with Andrew Davies abandoning the 'traditional' hour-long episode for half-hours with a definite cliffhanger ending.

There have been a few studies on how people read in Victorian times, or even earlier, and even then you had the page-turner, quickly written to be read quickly, and the novels to be savored.

And the film serial isn't that long gone, making the transition from big screen to television: my parents grew up in the era of watching 'Flash Gordon' at the cinema as the opener to a main feature.

Posted by: ahem | Sep 15, 2006 2:27:59 PM

I think Mr. Wilder has it. A narrative goes fast, on film or in writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. Narrative I read at not less than a page a minute, usually twice that; a three-page math proof can take me an hour. Everything else from Shakespeare on down is in between.

Posted by: wcw | Sep 15, 2006 3:47:46 PM

As a confirmed bookaholic I think the reason for fiction reading faster is we don't have to pay as much attention and just breeze right through.
With nonfiction we pay attention more because the information of things requires more concentration.
It also takes me longer with nonfiction because I usually have like 4 books going at a time.

Posted by: dlake | Sep 15, 2006 9:21:55 PM

For me, reading fiction is passive while reading non-fiction is active.

In a novel, I tend to skip paragraphs that appear to be too descriptive and "artsy" and jump to the next dialogue or informaiton-rich paragraph. I am sitting back and enjoying the ride.

In non-fiction I process information, think about it, debate it, check the foot/end-notes, perhaps take a break and walk the dog so I can think about it some more. Thus, it is more of a dialgoue between me and teh author and I am an active participant.

Posted by: coturnix | Sep 15, 2006 10:44:51 PM

The last time I read a major book (more than Scifi paperback) in one sitting was the hellish Sunday in 1969 when I read Catch 22, starting after lunch and finishing around dawn..
Now I habitually read an hour or two before bed most nights, which limits it.
And try getting through, say Middlemarch or Bleak House or The Magus in one sitting...

Posted by: Mr. Bill | Sep 16, 2006 7:23:45 AM

Ditto about the allure of a narrative.

Some non-fiction authors also frequently use grammar and syntax that is difficult to understand (e.g. use of passive voice, lengthy sentences, consecutive multisyllabic words that are uncommonly used, etc.). These devices require us to use more energy to comprehend the message, which, I think, makes reading less pleasurable and more time-consuming.

Posted by: Maria | Sep 16, 2006 4:07:45 PM

These devices require us to use more energy to comprehend the message, which, I think, makes reading less pleasurable and more time-consuming.

I am not trying to be insulting Maria, but I actually get a lot of pleasure from reading non-fiction because it is more energy intensive - I love "flexing" my brain. It's also what makes MENSA games so much fun. . .

Posted by: DuWayne | Sep 16, 2006 7:05:49 PM

Nobody's mentioned yet that this is perhaps the greatest thing about the internet: those of us who can't spend more than 40 minutes getting deep into one thing can instead spend hours skimming and plucking from a sea of things. I don't read as many non-fiction books as I used to, but I read considerably more non-fiction.

The more my reading shifts to the internet, the more I know a little bit about a lot of things. Back when I was in school and reading more books, I knew a lot about just a few things.

I prefer it this way, going broad over deep.

Posted by: Realish | Sep 16, 2006 10:29:41 PM

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