In the past month, there has been a recent spate of articles discussing the current state of publishing and reading. There is a changing appreciation for the written word, and a paradigm shift going on in how individuals access information. Not just news-and-numbers information, but emotional data. Information has always been presented in such a way that it makes individuals feel angry, sad, or relieved about the subject matter, but the decline of words (or, long series of complex words) and the rise of visual transmission makes such manipulations even more powerful.
The State of Publishing and Reading
On the publishing front they cry “books out, ebooks in.” Jeff Bercovici at Forbes.com points out that hardcover sales have been declining and that top-selling authors are increasingly gaining the greater portion of their revenue from digital ventures. At the Washington Post, Techcrunch.com describes soaring e-book sales and predicts a resurgence in sales of essays, long-form journalism, serial novels, and other such genres that require low time investment on the part of the reader.
At the same time, a number of commentators have begun lamenting the withdrawal of the long-form reader from America’s cultural and intellectual landscape, such as it is. The New York Times’s recent opinion article on the decline of “Big Ideas” had this to say on the subject of how Americans, and increasingly the world, accesses information and how it affects thinking:
There is the eclipse of the public intellectual in the general media by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness, and the concomitant decline of the essay in general-interest magazines. And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.
…[S]ocial networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus.
Steve Himmer’s essay laments a number of factors that might discourage reading among people, though he doesn’t actually discuss the increasing popularity of reading in short bursts. (“In an era of reduced library budgets and hours, closing bookstores, declining sales, and lost readers, discouraging anyone, of any age, from picking up a book they’re interested in seems like the last thing we should be doing.”) However, Alan Jacobs at the Chronicle, drawing from a 2005 sociology article, comments that this decline of long-form reading is more a return to normalcy than a regression of the American intellect:
[W]hile there was a period in which extraordinarily many Americans practiced long-form reading, whether they liked it or not, that period was indeed extraordinary and not sustainable in the long run. “We are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.”
But whatever designations we want to use, it has to be admitted that much of the anxiety about American reading habits, and those in other developed nations to a lesser degree, arises from frustration at not being able to sustain a permanent expansion of “the reading class” beyond what may be its natural limits.
The Impact of Books and Film
I don’t want to tackle whether the death of long-form reading is actually happening or will eventually happen. Though, I am reminded of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, in which poorer portions of global society, thanks to ubiquitous computing, have largely lost the need for reading and writing. They rely solely on video and on “media-glyphs,” short animations and or symbols, for all of their information needs. For now, I only want to consider some of the differences in how we present emotion in words and in visuals.
An “Increasingly Visual Culture”
I am fascinated by this line from the New York Times story above: “And there is the rise of an increasingly visual culture, especially among the young — a form in which ideas are more difficult to express.”
We are a visual culture, because we are a visual species. Following the invention of movies and television (unidirectional sharing, from filmmakers to the audience), which have always been staggeringly popular, today’s internet and technology’s vastly improved data-sharing capabilities allow the audience to share visual sights among itself. And we do, in incredible amounts. Visual information, while perhaps not as efficient at transmitting ideas (i.e. information), is many times more effective at transmitting emotions and environmental details than text.
Reasons Why Visuals Will Be More Emotional Than Static Words
Perhaps this is part of why so many of the items I will review on this post will be from movies, television shows, and internet clips. There are simply more of them that people discuss as being able to move them to tears. I think there are a couple of reasons for this.
First, video can be more emotional than books because it often requires less time to be moved by visual images than by text. An hour or two to get involved in a movie, versus many more hours of reading for a book. Though there are short stories out there that are extremely moving, there are many more short videos out there.
Second, and this may be related to the first point, it’s easier to pack more emotion into a single film scene than, say, a paragraph in a book. Viewers watching actors’ and actresses’ expressions and body language are immediately aware of emotional states with just a glance. This speed can allow visual scenes can function in a more modular fashion, whereas books often require a greater level of contextual understanding.
Finally, I think that film scenes are more memorable because our visual memory is so strong, especially when it comes to characters. It’s easier to remember their faces and actions, as well as the general setting, because we have a ready mnemonic (the visual scene) versus needing to reconstruct it in our imagination.
Not that I’m going to avoid posting about my favorite book scenes, but the words that have affected me the most often strike me as being less universal and more personal than visual scenes. There are exceptions to that rule, of course, but I’m just speaking in generalities here. I was discussing this with my wife, and as she paged through her book log containing entries from the past seven years, she was surprised by how little she remembered about which particular books moved her. Or, at least, she was sure that there had been instances in many of the books that might have struck her as sad, but they were so fleeting and memory is so liable to fail that she could not recollect the details. I had largely the same thoughts. Of course, I could recall the few books that have deeply moved me, A Soldier of the Great War, the Red Mars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to name of few, most of which have been with me since childhood. But in my mind I also know that there are many other books with passages that I thought particularly moving, but I can hardly recall the book; or, if I remember the book I don’t remember the specific words or the details of the scene.
There Are Unique Considerations for Both Genres
So, when writing to make people cry, there are a few things the author might want to consider, depending on how long their work is. Probably the most important is character development. If you’re writing a short story, you’re probably going to want to throw away any idea of dwelling on the setting. You don’t get all the bells and whistle that come practically free with images; you only have a limited window in which to attach the reader to the characters, so you had better focus on that.
If you’re writing about something involving a current event or a famous historical event, you may find that you have some extra leeway, because there’s a source of information (call it general cultural knowledge) that can supplement or color the writing without having to explain it directly. There are others that I’ll touch on throughout the course of writing this blog.
Film has its own unique constraints, as well. For instance, much of the ability to transmit emotion comes from the appearance and expression of the actors. If the actors can’t sell it, there’s not much you can do, however good the script or the shot. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of flexibility in this medium, because with visual images you also have the option of supplementing the video with voice, sounds, music, and even text!
Combining text and visual images often makes for extremely powerful and memorable stories, and I wouldn’t be surprised if technology, at some point in the slightly less-distant future, made multimedia books possible. Imagine Dinotopia with moving dinosaurs in the images or sound-bites of dinosaur sounds and music, or interactive illustrated children’s books in which the child learns to read and can manipulate the character or the setting at the same time. We have the rudiments of all these possibilities already worked out (children’s books on the ipad, for instance). In the future we will probably see books of poetry in which readers large and small can read along with the poet or a professional voice actor, or simply listen in. Novels with embedded video, or soundtracks even. Should be interesting.
Only Vaguely Related but Highly Entertaining
Here’s a great Daily Show clip about bookstores that came up this past week, which, naturally, speaks volumes on its own:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Borders Goes Out of Business|