What’s the point of reading novels in an era of Netflix?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


Readers are ‘easing into extinction as newer and flashier means of grabbing our attention evolve’, declared the US author Steve McEllisten. Compared with 2019, subscribers to streaming services grew by 71 per cent in 2020, yet only half of adults in the UK read at least one book a year. Today, people are more likely to reach for their remote to catch up with the latest blockbuster on Netflix than pick a novel from the bookshelf.

Some argue that using technology has even ‘rewired’ how we read, as we are inclined to read more quickly due to the scrolling action we employ on social-media posts. An English teacher blamed today’s ‘digital culture’ that is ‘all about immediate gratification’ for the decline of reading among teenagers. Others contend that accessing content online has reduced our attention span, and that our hectic modern lifestyle is not conducive to reading something longer like a novel. The acronym ‘tl;dr,’ which stands for ‘too long didn’t read,’ has even started to make an appearance on social-media posts.

Is reading a novel a better experience than watching Netflix? Novelist Diana Wagman argues that ‘the act of physically turning a page creates a momentary pause for understanding to sink in. Our brains work to translate the black squiggles on the page into words and then interpret the meaning and intent of those words…. TV takes all that imagination away’. During the lockdowns of the last 18 months, book clubs flourished as individuals harnessed tech to discuss books via Zoom. Contrasting reading books to watching TV, the Cambridge academic Dr Malachi McIntosh suggests that reading fiction ‘creates a space for us to think about ourselves and our world in novel ways’ as distinct from television or film. He argues that the reader has ‘significant control over the experience and works with the author rather than being worked on by the author’. Others maintain that the act of reading has incidental advantages such as decreasing your heart rate and helping to improve sleep.

If novel readers are becoming an ‘extinct’ species, can we blame Netflix or are there other factors at work? The historian Orlando Figes argues that students are taught to pass exams, but not to ‘read in ways that advance understanding and knowledge’. Some assert that the increasing politicisation of the English literature curriculum in schools has turned students away from a love of literature, as classic texts are routinely seen as problematic. Does the popularity of streaming services and social media signal the end of our love affair with reading novels? Or is there still nothing quite like getting lost in a book?

Elisabetta Gasparoni
teacher; founder, Aesthetic Study Group

George Harrison
co-author, Inside Allenwood; writer; journalist

Phil Harrison
writer; author, The First Day; filmmaker, Even Gods

Michael Nath
author, The Treatment and La Rochelle; senior lecturer in creative writing and English literature, University of Westminster

Dr Maren Thom
lecturer; writer; acting and vocal trainer

Simon McKeon
archivist; 20 years experience of working in local authority culture departments; writer