Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print:Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control will be published in May but in the meantime you can visit his excellent blog fittingly titled The Late Age of Print.
The most recent post entitled What Publishing Can Learn, Part 1 looks at what publishers can learn from The Da Vinci Code. In the post Striphas remarks on his sister’s ease in poring through Dan Brown’s book and what this mode of engagement might portend for the way we read. More specifically, the novel’s short chapters reminded her of watching a movie and as Striphas suggests is tuned to the “fine-grain” of twenty-first-century everyday life. However, as Stirphas notes Brown’s method can also be found in earlier works by far more ambitious writers:
Anyone who’s ever consumed or even simply thumbed through Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) or Understanding Media (1964) will recognize The Da Vinci Code’s distant kin. The former are academic screeds composed of punchy “snack sized” chapters. McLuhan understood better, and earlier, than almost anyone how to communicate effectively using the printed word in a time not only of ascendant electronic media but indeed of myriad other everyday distractions.
In saying that The Da Vinci Code’s success is attributable in part to the brevity of its chapters, I should be clear that I am absolutely not suggesting that people’s attention spans are waning, or that we have lost our ability to process long, slowly developing arguments or narratives. Nevertheless, ours unquestionably is an age of myriad distractions — electronic or otherwise (a crying baby, a loud truck rolling by, the incessant drone of leaf blowers) — that make it more difficut to spend protracted periods of time with protracted amounts of text.
My suggestion that books might be better served with smaller chapters, à la The Da Vinci Code, thus is a pragmatic rather than a moral one. Essentially I’m asking book publishers and authors to attune their sensitivities better to the fine-grain of everyday life, where reading happens, and to refashion their books accordingly.