How Literature Survives in a World Addicted to Instant Gratification

Written by Grace Mappes

Thanks to technology’s swift evolution and increasing availability, many of us today literally have the world at our fingertips. With just one tap on my phone I can order a textbook, send a transatlantic text, and even tweet the President of the United States directly—all instantaneously. Corporations have fought to keep up with the demand as well; Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping has long been a hallmark of its appeal and they’ve ramped up their efforts even more with select free one-day shipping, same day shipping, and even Prime Now for two-hour delivery. Several other large retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, have competitively followed suit. It’s safe to say that when one of these orders gets delayed for whatever reason—perhaps a long weekend or inclement weather—our patience can wear thin rather quickly. This form of instant gratification even extends to interacting with others through social media: Twitter has a 280-character limit and one doesn’t need more than a few seconds to view a Snapchat, for example.

So, what does this have to do with literature?

Well, studies say that overall, people are reading less for leisure now than they were thirty years ago, and it’s easy to see why. Whenever I have a few spare minutes, whether I’m in between classes or taking a break while doing homework, more often than not I find myself reaching for my phone instead of the Hemingway novel I’m working on (even though I absolutely adore it). The convenience of my phone simply can’t be beat; it’s smaller and takes less time to engage than a novel. A novel serves one purpose: to tell the reader one story as written by the author. My smartphone, meanwhile, serves near-infinite purposes and acts as a palm-sized computer. And social media makes the phone even more tempting; in the time it takes to read one chapter, I could probably go through dozens of tweets or hundreds of Instagram posts. The gratification one gets from finishing a task comes sooner with reading a short post than it does when reading a long novel or even a single chapter. The same is true with poetry: it often takes multiple readings and more active engagement to dissect a poem than it does to engage with social media. As an English major and lifelong lover of literature, this is pretty embarrassing to admit.

However, literature is evolving to fit this new status quo. Instagram has quickly become a medium for poets to gain exposure for their work. One of the most famous of these “Instapoets” is Rupi Kaur. A glance at her Instagram reveals why: much of her poetry there is short, easy to digest, and near universally relatable (my roommate, a literary buff herself, owns Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers, and much prefers the book’s longer, deeper poetry to what Kaur publishes on her Instagram, but I haven’t read it myself to confirm). Though incredibly popular—with 2.1 million followers—even as I looked up “Rupi Kaur Instagram” in my research for this piece, two out of the four links I found were all harsh criticisms of Kaur and her poetry. The first one, “Instagram Poet Rupi Kaur Seems Utterly Uninterested in Reading Books,” written by Lindsey Adler for The Concourse, lashes out instantly with its title. The second article that appeared in the Guardian is more subtle, accusing one of her poems of “[having] the air of the slurred advice you might overhear at the back of a Wetherspoons.” But Kaur’s poems elicit a strong emotional response from a reader in a short amount of time, which plays on our culture of instant gratification. No matter how legitimate her critics may or may not be, no one can deny that Kaur’s work caters to her audience quite effectively.

Personally, I prefer to peel back layers of depth in what I read and write and have resolved to find more time to do so. If I dared to save some of them, all the little bits of time I spend on my phone could instead be spent on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Earlier today, a friend recommended I look at Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which reminds the reader that all great and powerful things will succumb to time eventually. I should dive back into what I love before I succumb as well.

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