Brevity is the soul of ereading
How the rise of digital devices has given the short story a shot in the arm
New habits: there are many ways, and places, in which to read an ebook. Photograph: Will Ireland/Future Publishing via Getty Images
I was a late convert to ebooks, seduced only by necessity: the birth of a child, which made the prospect of a backlit screen that I could manipulate single-handedly in the middle of a night feed too attractive to resist. But the type of reading a sleep-deprived brain is capable of changed my reading habits too. Once a fan of the serial epic, I became a connoisseur of the short story. The form and the format in which I was receiving it became indivisible, and I was heartened to discover that I was not alone.
The publishing industry was quick to take note of the way reading habits were being reshaped by digital technology. Digital reading is an interstitial activity: we eread while doing something else – taking a bus, using the bathroom, feeding a child – and the short story is the perfect form for this new reading reality, offering concise narratives perfect for consumption in a single sitting.
Genre publishers, as is often the case, were the first to capitalise on this trend, commissioning short stories by established names. The science-fiction house Angry Robot, for example, launched its Nano Editions in 2010, bringing bite-sized futuristic fantasy to digital fans.
It wasn’t long before the big publishing houses followed suit. Penguin Specials was launched in the spring of 2011, offering essay-style musings from contemporary writers on topics as diverse as Epicurean philosophy (Reclaiming Epicurus, Luke Slattery, £1.99) and the politics of patient care (Dying for a Chat, Dr Ranjana Srivastava, £1.99).
Orhan Pamuk’s What Goes On in Our Minds When We Read a Novel (£1.99), in which he admits the “many ways to read a novel”, seems particularly pertinent to the changing relationship between readers and their books, but it is difficult to imagine his own “naive and sentimental” recollections of a lifetime of reading as having taken place anywhere but in “the orange armchair [with] the stinking ashtray beside me, the carpeted room” that he so vividly describes.
Yet Pamuk’s evocative description of the room receding as he reads is a reminder of the power of the written word to transport the reader, even in an “interstitial” context.
Companies specifically established to reflect the busy reader’s digital preferences soon began to pop up. For those with literary preferences, Byliner is the best. Although it is free to join, it operates on a subscription basis; full access to the catalogue is $9.99 a month. Members can follow writers and are alerted to any new material posted in their digital catalogue. There is also a suggestion for how long each piece will take to read, although this is perhaps taking the idea of the time-pressed reader a bit too seriously. There is some open access material, but it is the exclusive content – new stories, edited extracts from forthcoming books – that are the real draw. Byliner holds more than 300,000 stories and articles from an impressive range of contemporary writers and thinkers, from Naomi Klein to Maile Meloy.