When my wife and I were discussing “the decline of reading” recently, she suggested that having people work less might increase the amount of reading time. This is not the first time this had been suggested to me—the Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie made a similar suggestion. But combined with other conversations about how novel-reading grew in the eighteenth century (and how the English claimed that their novels were the first “real” novels, pace Ian Watt), this begins to look extremely cogent.
If, as has been argued, the rise of novel reading is based on several factors—the development of moveable type in the fifteenth century, the rise of literacy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, increased leisure time as a result of the Industrial Revolution and drives toward democratization in the eighteenth century—the post-industrial world will have to manage its own literary changes associated with technological developments. The novel of linked episode that dominated from the fifteenth to the mid-eighteen centuries (think Lazarillo de Tormes and Miguel de Cervantes) led to the novel of event narrative (think Fielding to Balzac), which led the novel of event-consciousness narrative (Flaubert to [George] Eliot) which led to the novel of narrated imagination (Proust, Kafka, Broch) and then randomness of form (Guysin) and fear of randomness (Pynchon). Now we are told that kids today read random snippets—see the New York Times article from Sunday, July 27, 2008—which they perhaps re-formulate on their own into what may pass for coherence (for a well-done look at this, see David Markson’s The Last Novel). This makes me anxious. If The Matrix movies tell us anything, it’s that undisciplined autodidacticism is creeping up behind us, like a tiger waiting to pounce. For those who believe in intellectual discipline as a process, it ain’t pretty.
If narrative fiction was itself a cultural episode, what’s next in narrative reading? If, as Bruce Sterling says, connectivity will soon move from pervasive to ubiquitous, we’ll be working or socializing all the time. We won’t be able to drop off the grid to spend hours with a novel. Episode to narrative to snippet.