But even if we disregard the interruption factor in novels, reading a novel is often a multitasking challenge in itself because authors like to play games with the reader. Telling a story strictly linear can be boring, so authors sometimes reveal information out of temporal order, challenging the reader to keep all the facts straight. Or, the story is told from the viewpoint of several characters, and it is up to the reader to keep the different story threads apart.
|Cloud Atlas: Hexatasking|
In other words, halfway the reader has to maintain a representation of six partially finished stories. The challenge is to get into the second half of each of the remaining stories as they unfold, up until the second part of the first story. In my own experience this became increasingly harder, because more time and interfering text had passed in between. Nevertheless, Cloud Atlas is not a heavy read, and in fact quite an enjoyable book I would recommend to anyone. Reading: quite a feat of human multitasking.
Interestingly enough, the screenwriters of the movie version of Cloud Atlas decided not to follow the structure of the novel. Instead, they interleaved all six stories, ending with the end of the sixth story. And this was probably a good idea: if the movie would have been cut in the same way as the book is told, it would probably have become way too confusing (although it would be an interesting experiment to try out: can someone edit the movie in the book order an email it to me? I'd gladly run the experiment). Somehow the movie format requires refreshing the memory of the viewer every once in a while.
Why is there this difference between books and movies? Is it just the amount of time we spend on them? This cannot be the whole story, because the movie is approximately three hours, so if the movie would have been cut consistently with the structure of the book, the interruption in the first story would have been around 2.5 hours. When I read the book, the interruption was over a month. Even though reading the book may take longer than watching the movie (a factor of 5, perhaps?), the interruptions are even longer (a factor of 300, in my case).
Perhaps the difference is that we have different expectations, and therefore bring other memory strategies to bear. Maybe, when we read we are more proactive in building up a story representation than when watching a movie, in particular when most movies are designed to not require too much thinking anyway.