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Putting Ourselves Out of Business
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When I read Rob Preece's comment on my last entry, that soon book tours will be limited to retirement homes because that's where all the readers will be, I thought about JT Ellison's recent post at Murderati, although the connection might not be readily apparent. In The Two Minute Rule Ellison espouses the common wisdom about the necessity for books to grab the reader's attention quickly:

I was thinking about how men approach their sports, that the final two minutes are the most important and exciting because it completely captures their interest. I realized that I approach reading the same way. If you don’t capture my attention within the first two minutes, you’re sunk.

Now, I’m a fast reader, and I can get 10-15 pages into a book in two minutes. And if you haven’t shown me something by then, I’m going to be a little cranky.

Last week, one of the lists I participate in had a discussion about where to have the first murder. Does it have to be on the first page, the first chapter, within the first fifty pages? Would it be okay to build the characters, or romance, or whatever, before your murder appears?

In my humble opinion, no. That’s not okay. You have two minutes to get the attention of your reader.

I don't disagree entirely. Mary and I try to begin our mysteries with a bang (even allowing that there were no firearms in the sixth century) and there's no doubt that practically everyone has become less patient about nearly everything, thanks to the frantic pace of modern life. But where does the mad rush toward instant gratification end?

Ellison compares the way people read to the way they watch sports. More often the comparison is between books and movies or tv shows. The argument seems to be that books need to emulate these popular forms to survive. But a book isn't a sport, or a tv show or a movie, and the more books mimick those other forms of communication the more irrelvant books become. Who needs books anymore if all they do is what television and the movies can do better?

Which is why Rob is probably right, that before long only old folks will read. And the only reason they'll have to read is that they're used to it. There will no longer be anything in books that can't be found elsewhere and no reason for future generations to bother with the things.

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