One of the aims of the novelist, writes John Gardner in his The Art of Fiction, is to create for the reader "a vivid and continuous dream". Well, these days, I find that dream to be full of interruptions.
I'm not referring to doorbells, phone calls and mysterious thumps from next door. Rather, it's the distraction caused by having access to the Internet. The lurking sense that there are e-mails to be checked, tweets to be followed, status updates to be noted, headlines to be scanned or new videos of Rebecca Black to be made fun of.
The ease with which all of this can be accomplished means that it's a temptation to be constantly wrestled with, and more often than not, I find myself pinned to the ground. And the more often one enters that kinetic, frenetic arena, the more difficult it is to settle down for a period of sustained, single-minded attention.
Nicholas Carr, in his much-discussed The Shallows, maintains that the Web destroys focus, quoting neurological studies to prove that it rewires the brain. "Because it disrupts concentration," he writes, "such activity weakens comprehension". Concentration, comprehension: without these qualities, the act of reading is imperiled. Bandwidth comes at the expense of mindwidth.
As with others, there are two states I swing between when reading a novel. The first, of immersion: of being drawn into and inhabiting the author's world, one that supplants ordinary laws of time and space. The other, of being aware that I am reading: of peripheral vision, of turning the pages and of occasionally checking to see how many more are left. Sadly, it's the latter state that prevails and more and more nowadays. (The problem resolves itself if it's a novel I dislike, in which case I simply skim.)
When much younger, this quality of immersion was so much more pronounced. Succumbing to one of his usual fits of nostalgia, Proust has written, "There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book". He goes on to state that memories of those times even bring alive the surroundings: "If we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist". Every such book, then, becomes a diary of the past.
To return to the 21st century, there's the added complication, as many have pointed out, that Web pages simply aren't conducive to reading at length. Bite-sized pieces are all we absorb before clicking and moving on, and this habit can persist when we return to the printed page. (Paradoxically, though, it's the Web that's being credited with something of a revival of long-form journalism, be it through curation sites such as LongForm.org, save-for-later services such as Instapaper, or Kindle Singles. Content is selected, distractions are eliminated. Dedicated e-book readers, too, have that advantage -- which is why I think the Kindle should simply do away with the rudimentary Web access it currently provides.)
Which leads to the speculation that, when it comes to the novel, we'll return to the time of the Victorians, with authors writing in monthly installments that appear on e-readers and periodicals, subsequently being issued as one large, complete volume. James Buzard, MIT literature professor, makes this sound trendy when he says that such serials "encourage a different social engagement" with books,talking of it as a form of "viral marketing" where readers have the time to exchange views on the work in progress with each other and with the novelist. ("But, Charles, did you really have to let Little Nell die?")
While we wait for these and other necessities-turned-virtues to materialise, I'm left with an immediate, unresolved problem. There are more than 150 unread pages of a book that I have to review, and if I persist in turning to one of the many screens that surround my life, I'm never going to meet the deadline.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a writer with an advertising agency in Mumbai. His reviews are collected at Antiblurbs.