Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.
Like many if not most bookaholics, I live with the constant anxiety of knowing I will never, no matter to what ripe old age I survive, be able to read all the books I want to read. So the question arises: Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a way to read an entire novel in less than two hours?
People in my social media feeds have been pretty excited about “this amazing new app that lets you read a novel in 90 minutes” the past little while. They’re talking about the new speed reading app Spritz, which flashes text at anywhere from 250 to 1000 words a minute, and uses a novel technique to focus your eyes in one place as it does so. Using it is a thoroughly discombobulating, fascinating experience—try it here. The best description I’ve heard is that it’s less like reading and more like snorting words as if they were coke.
Easy as it is to criticize the mindset that leads to these kinds of products, though, they are each ostensibly symptomatic reactions to a broader anxiety: that in the glut of too much information, whether about health or the world, one fitting response is to try to be as robot-like as possible—to substitute the simplicity of input-output for the difficult complexities of culinary pleasure or literary beauty. If Spritz is the edge-case of information-overload anxiety, however, there are nonetheless more productive reactions afoot to the shifting position of the written word. Among the most promising to my mind is new app Rooster, which looks to deliver bite-size snippets of literature to phones and tablets. The idea is that because we tend to engage with “content” in fragmented form, rather than Angry Birds or Facebook on the subway, why not Goethe or Tagore—just split up into chunks? At times of your choosing during the week, whether for your morning commute or just before bed, Rooster will deliver a small part of a novel to your device, which you can then settle in to read.
There is no end to the arguments about the manner in which reading extended narrative as a kind of cultural practice is and is not damaged by the atomization of content like in Rooster, or the simple pressures on attention caused by constantly beeping phones. The nay arguments … tend to assume that the very fragmentation of fiction itself harms the experience and immersion of reading: that it is the very immersion into a book over a period of time that is at the core of literature’s transformative effects.
Yet, what Rooster and similar apps do is pay less attention to the experience of reading itself and instead focus on the context within which reading occurs—something that has been, up to this point, mostly ignored. The new slogan for digital design, after all, is “mobile first,” a response to the profound shift that has led to most computing and digital reading being done on phones and computers. Most of that emphasis, however, is simply on design workflows, where the main question is, “how does this news site appear on a tablet?” What Rooster suggests, however, is that if we literary types are thinking about how to react to the changes engendered by digital media, at least one of the questions that needs answering is how do we get literature to actually fit into people’s lives?
To me, that’s like asking how do we get eating or breathing to actually fit into people’s lives. But to each their own, I suppose.