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Is the art of longform reading dead?

Published on May 26, 2014 6:56 PM

Ask people if they've read Thomas Piketty's massive tome on Capitalism in the 20th Century. That's the book everyone is talking about but no one has actually read - except the academics and businessmen with too much time on their hands, of course. The standard reply is, "yes I've been meaning to get a copy of that." Which means they will get a copy, and it will sit in a prominent place on their bookshelves.

"See, there I have Piketty," someone may point out to you. Then an interesting discussion about the firestorm ignited by the Financial Times report that some of the data are dubious or inexplicable will take place, probably over a beer or wine or something spiritually stronger. Mind you, the discussion will be based on what commentators are saying about Piketty and his conclusions on inequality, not on a first hand reading of the book. Thank goodness for these intellectual discussions based on second hand web commentaries!

Over the last few months, I managed to finish some novels from European authors Bernhard Schlink, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Pascal Mercier and Maria Duenas. This was interspersed with the occasional novel from an author on the other side of the Atlantic like Philip Roth. At times, a novel grabs you by the neck and forces you to finish it until you doze off late at night with the light still on. But most times, you leave a bookmark and decide you will continue reading it when you have some free time.

But the reading most people engage in on a regular basis consists of short snippets of information such as that found on Facebook and Twitter feeds, newspaper articles (and hopefully opeds like this one). They may also read restaurant menus, street signs, or reports they need to read at work or textbooks they need to read in school. Time is gold many will say. But most people seem happy to spend time updating their Facebook or Twitter status with trivial and useless information they think will amuse others, even during regular working hours.

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