Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Semi-coherent Thoughts on Reading and Time

For the better part of the last four days, I’ve been thinking about time, and books, and reading. Last Thursday over at Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey posted the first page New York Times bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale in his “Flog A Pro” column. If you’re not familiar with it, in “Flog A Pro,” Rhamey posts the first page of a current bestseller (minus title/author) and asks his readers, “Would you turn the page and keep reading?” There’s a little doodad for voting and viewing the vote tallies, and Rhamey continues by identifying the book/author, and analyzing the opening, explaining his own answer. It’s an interesting exercise, well worth the time, in my opinion.

Though it has been several years since I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I knew by the second line that that’s what I was reading. Apparently, Margaret Atwood’s opening stuck with me over the years, and I voted ‘Yes’ to the question, “Would you turn the page?” and I commented as well my belief that the opening page was outstanding. At the time I voted, the overwhelming majority (though in an admittedly small sample size) was also voting the same way. Both commenters before me were similarly impressed.

Later in the day, I went back to see what others were saying, and found the tide had turned: the no’s outvoted the pro’s (at last look, it was 78-70 in favor of nay). And while those who bothered to comment still mostly extolled the virtue of Atwood’s first page, several of them noted the book might have a hard time getting published or gaining traction today (The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1986 in the US), while a couple stated plainly that they did not like it.

And I’m fine with that, really. The fact is, not everything is going to please everyone, and Atwood’s style is much more literary than the novels Rhamey usually features. But there was one comment that especially stuck with me (and it wasn’t the one that dismissed the opening as “pretentious twaddle”. Okay, maybe that one stuck with me, too). The one that has really stuck with me said, “Books 30 years ago could take their time and if I was on vacation maybe I would have continued but today? No time.”

No time.

At this point, I can see a friend of mine raising his eyebrow, looking at me over the top of his glasses, and saying something like, “Last time I looked, we all have the same time. Twenty-four hours, right?” And it’s true. We all have the same amount of time in a day, the same amount of time in a week. The only difference amongst us, ultimately, is how much time we have on this earth. That’s the big unknown.

But what I find myself wondering, more and more, is what’s so much more precious about our time now than thirty years ago? A lot of people read The Handmaid’s Tale back when it first came out–enough to make it a bestseller, enough to get it printed in many countries, enough to help Atwood win or get nominated for a number of prizes, enough for it to get turned into a major movie in 1990. (For an intersting perspective on what the success of this book did/meant to Atwood, see this article). So, why did so many people have so much time in 1986, and why do we have so little of it to this day? As far as I know, we still have twenty-four hours in the day, right?

According to the website Reading Length (readinglength.com, and just know before you go my antivirus flagged it as ‘suspicious,’ though it seems perfectly fine), The Handmaid’s Tale is 311 pages long, 96,000 words, and will take 6 hours, 25 minutes to read from end to end. Wow. In comparison, Cross the Line, the latest in James Patterson’s Alex Cross series, is a whopping 400 pages, 124,000 words, and will take 8 hours, 16 minutes to read. In other words, the latest Patterson potboiler will keep you from reading more books than Atwood’s. Which one don’t you have time for?

Of course, the “no time” comment doesn’t mean the person literally doesn’t have time to read Atwood–we’ve all got the same amount of time in a day, right?–it could mean (probably means, in fact) this person just doesn’t enjoy this style of book (and, despite my use of statistics, it probably does take longer to read a 300 page Atwood than a 400 page Patterson) And that’s okay. Again, not all things appeal to all people, and quite honestly, I suspect most of the readership of Writer Unboxed leans away from literary fiction. But using time as an excuse rings a little hollow. We’re already making a commitment of time by picking up a book. What difference does it really make if this book takes eight hours versus that one’s six? If a person is an avid reader (and someone who is reading Writer Unboxed probably is), they’re just going to open up another book once they close this one for the last time. Reading doesn’t come down to not having time: it comes down to how you choose to spend the time.

Does it matter to you how long it takes to read a book? Do you feel an urge to burn through books fast, or are you okay with taking your time?

4 Responses

  1. There's about to be a TV version of it in the UK, so it's clearly still pretty popular. I do think a lot of people feel they had more time on their hands back then, of course social media is a major time suck. Maybe this commenter felt they don't have time for a book that maybe requires a deeper emotional investment and wants something they can rip through quickly like the Patterson. That's a bit sad, isn't it?

  2. I think people are groomed by modern movies for lots of action and less character development, which is unfortunate. I like to compare the two movies Dante's Peak and Volcano. They came out the same year. With Volcano you jumped right into the action, but I found I cared less about what happened to the characters–even Tommy Lee's daughter. With Dante's Peak you get to know the characters and their issues and are invested in them before the stuff hits the fan.

    But lots of people just want the thrills.

  3. I think it's too many things going on. We never had so much on the computer or at work. So much multi-tasking. Work, home, hobbies, writing, kids, and those who are authors need hours for promo-ing our work. Now unless a book really grips us, it's hard to find the time to read it. I used to devour books (before I was a writer). Now I barely read 1 a month.

  4. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    In the end, I guess it all comes down to what we choose to make time for. The other question is, is it that we have less time, or less patience?

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