3 Reasons Lists Have Changed the Way We Read

Today, there are probably at least a hundred new articles with headlines designed to invite a curious click, anything from 5 Reasons to Go to College, 10 Backyard Plants You Didn’t Know Were Edible, 15 Beautiful Locations Every Cool Person Should Visit, 20 Things You Learn in Your 20’s, and so on. Several of these are interesting, containing information that a casual surfer of the web might not encounter otherwise, and many others are, at the very least, good for a chuckle or two.

However, all of these articles are built on three components that have changed how we read.

Before I go too much farther, I will say that reading something online and physically picking up a book are two different experiences and are intended to be. Nevertheless, the predominance of the former is influencing the latter, whether we realize it or not.

  1. Expectations

To Kill a Mockingbird has very little to do with directions on taking out neighborhood fowl.

Expectation is the first way that our reading is being changed by lists. This post is a great example: from the first introduction to the title, the reader is already expecting to find three ways that reading has been changed by lists. In our hurried days and schedules, we look for the numbers and the emphasized text beside them then prepare ourselves to agree or disagree with what appears there (Are those really the ten worst things to say on a date?). From the title, readers are only looking for what that title has promised them. Anything incidental appearing between those numbers (explanation or reasoning) has a tendency to get skipped over.

With literature, titles are often much more vague. In a library or bookstore, you’d be hard-pressed to find books that advertise themselves with titles like 7 Reasons This Certain Boy Won’t Get the Girl, 5 Reasons History is Important, 3 Times Good Triumphed over Evil, or 2 Ways the Mastermind’s Devious Plot is Foiled. Something like this might be found in the self-help section, but outside of it is a rolling sea of ambiguity. If we’re not careful, our expectation of knowing exactly what we are about to read based on the title can lead us to be skeptical about first impressions of books.

A title should arouse curiosity, hold a bit of mystery, and lead to the reader taking it down from the shelf. Often this is done by provoking the imagination with a combination of words that appeals to the abstract, coloring book side of our brains rather than the logical, listing side. Titles are haiku, in a way. They present an image, and a good one will paint a picture inside your mind so vivid you are compelled to see what kind of story could do that.

  1. Limitations

With lists, the reader is immediately given a set number of points to take away. The title says there will be nine reasons to own a Siberian tiger, so the list will have nine reasons. After that, there is no more discussion, no more expansion or exploration. You read for those nine reasons and then you are finished, whether your ideas on tiger ownership have been discussed or not. This is a simple example, but when we come to a book after one of these lists, is there not a temptation to feel that there is only so much to be gleaned from one? Surely there are only 5 main themes, 8 characters to really pay attention to?

Our view can be shortened by lists. The book is diminished into Cliff’s notes and bullet points with this kind of reading. An avid reader will tell you that some of her most favorite parts of a book or the characters that made her day aren’t necessarily the ones that “everyone” likes or the ones that “everyone” notices. Books, in a lot of ways, are like theater productions. Each person in the audience has a different perspective, and each person gets to choose what he wants to pay attention to, whether it’s the center stage action or the little boy tying shoelaces together stage left.

  1. Time

Our sense of time is affected when it comes to reading. A list is handy because, due to the numbering system, we can estimate very concisely about how long it will take us to read something. Again, lists cater to our frenetic pace of reading. They tell us how many points there are, and as we read, we can keep track of our progress and be assured that the article will indeed conclude (Ah, 6 of 10. It took me 4 minutes to get this far, so I must only have a little longer to go). This very quickly dips into the realm of keeping such close watch on the “minutes left in chapter” at the bottom of your e-reader that you lose track of what you’re actually reading.

Books are not as simple when it comes to time. In comparison, the commitment to read a full-length novel can seem overwhelming. Chapter numbers make no promises about their length or brevity, and the physical appearance of the book—maybe two inches thick and heavy—might deter a potential reader. With the ease of convenient, quick reading, our standards of reading for fun may suffer. It happens with lists, too. Between a list of 15 Breathtaking Libraries and 75 Films to See Before You Die, which one do you think will be read?

Lists can be enjoyable and informative, but I believe it’s important to be aware of how they might be teaching us to read and disposing us to be hesitant or reluctant to delve more deeply into writing wherever it’s found. After a long day, fast food holds strong appeal when cooking is the other option, but the question still stands: which one is better for you? As with anything, I suppose, moderation is wise. It will always be easier to do less—to think less, to take on less things, to be less active—but effort, especially in reading, is always rewarding.

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