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.
Occasionally you see someone with an ebook reader at a coffee shop trying to pretend his coffee cup is still full and hot. On that point, I have never understood the need to keep 500 titles of books in an ebook reader - just because you can - particularly if you can't even finish one anyway.
Not that I don't subscribe to the ebook revolution. Personally whether it's on paper or e-ink doesn't matter to me. It's the words that count. Although in the case of an e-book reader, once you drop the darn thing, there goes the book. The same doesn't seem to apply to a regular paperback. Then, of course, the paperback does display the vain photograph of some bestselling author on the back cover, while the ebook backside is just some pale shade of grey.
Is the art of longform writing dead? Perhaps the right question to ask is, is the art of longform reading dead? And does the publisher think it will sell? Writers do like being talked about, but they prefer it when their books are actually opened and read, as opposed to being talked about based on some commentary published somewhere. It doesn't help to write longform articles and books if no-one is going to read them.
It used to be that writers had nothing to do but write when the sun went down, and there was no other distraction unless there was someone else in the room. But now there are more distractions, like that de rigueur Facebook update that keeps writers from writing that long book they keep telling their friends about.
Dennis Posadas is the author of Greenergised (UK: Greenleaf, 2013) and is working on a new business fable on corporate sustainability.