Is It Long Enough to Grab My Attention?


With all this hand-wringing about how no one has any attention span left anymore, that people only read on their phones while walking from the car into the house, or in those few moments in between checking Facebook and writing a hundred text messages an hour, I wonder why I just don’t feel such pressures.

When I think about deciding to read something I wonder: Is it long enough my attention? Or will I just get into the story and find that it is suddenly over? I don’t want to jump from screen to screen and story to story. I’d rather be seduced by the simple flow of words. I want to begin at the beginning and be lured on to follow the tale to its end, an end that shouldn’t come too soon. Otherwise why even begin?

I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this way. Long novels still get written, and still get read. People do want to get immersed in the story. In fact, it might be the most immersive stories that best survive the transition from printed page to swiping screen. If you care enough about what will happen next, then you stop noticing what it is you are reading on and get carried away by the way the action finds itself in words.

Writing held firmly in the firmament of words has always seemed more pure than media, which wants to immerse us in worlds by giving us extra fixes on the imagination that perhaps we don’t really need: pictures, movies, and sound that may add to the experience but distract from the purity of language working on its own.

We are supposed to be talking about design in this sprint and all of us seem to agree that electronic books are under-designed; that they do not use fonts, leading, line width, and line spacing to the best advantage. While giving the reader endless options for customization, they do not teach us what makes one book more beautiful than another.

But wait a minute—do I mean to say that how the book looks might be more important than what it says? I just finished arguing for the clarity of language as opposed to any ornamentation of what needs to be said, so who needs design? I’m learning here from John D. Berry, a fantastic book designer who has had a hand in the look of so many of the favorite titles on my home shelves, and he said one rather remarkable thing: You have to choose the line length only after delving into the way each author writes. Different language suggests different layout, and one shouldn’t give up on this opportunity when faced with the allure of digital convenience.

Whatever goes in to our three-day book jam, it should be designed in a unique and powerful form that gives an example of how the next generation of books might be fashioned, and conceived.

One thought on “Is It Long Enough to Grab My Attention?

  1. Jan Sassano Jan Sassano

    Lucky you (and others) for not feeling the pressure! I love a long book, so long as it contains a good story. Content over form always, but books and future books must be designed, and there’s no underestimating the extent to which design helps guide, color and shape the worlds they offer readers. Our task here should be to imagine optimal designs that both enhance the core storytelling and inspire optimal, and emotional, reader engagement.

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