So, there’s apparently a problem called The Anna Karenina Problem, in which the internet has made it more difficult for people to focus for long periods of time, and because of this, are not able to read Anna Karenina the way that it was intended to be read. Presumably this way is in a matter of days or a few weeks, in long sittings — the way that it could be read by pre-internet readers with superior attention spans.
The problem with The Anna Karenina Problem is the following:
Anna Karenina was published in serial in The Russian Messenger, from 1873 to 1877.
The way that Anna Karenina was first read was not in one supreme feat of human attention, but instead, in short instalments—like blog posts. You could not read Anna Karenina in less than four years when it was first published.
I hereby dub this The “The Anna Karenina Problem” Problem.
The “The Anna Karenina Problem” Problem is that people today assume that the way that books were produced and read when they were growing up, say in the 1970s, is both inevitable and superior to all ways in the past and present.
However, it is neither. It’s not true about how books were produced and read in the 1870s—see Charles Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins for examples. Similarly, it’s not necessarily true about how books should be produced and read in 2013.
Human attention spans in today’s internet age are the same as they always have been: nasty, brutish and short. But at least today the concern is about being distracted by LOLcats instead of being eaten by jungle ones.
If you still have attention span, I discussed this and more in my talk about Lean Publishing at TOC 2013. Now, if you have been damaged by the internet, the discussion of serial fiction starts at about the 14 minute mark, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon starts at about the 21 minute mark. Or if you have a really long attention span, you can read the full discussion in Lean Publishing — the book’s minimum price is free, so all you need is an attention span.