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Reading on the Clock

12 November 2013

From the Page-Turner blog at The New Yorker:

When I was assigned to read “Anna Karenina” during the summer before my senior year of high school, I had no idea how long it would take. Daunted by its length, and by the challenge of telling my Alexei Alexandroviches from my Alexei Kirilloviches, I put off reading it and put off reading it until, by the end of August—having only reached the beginning of Anna and Vronsky’s affair—I knew I wouldn’t be near finished by the time school started up again.

This “miscalculation” was mainly the result of procrastination, but also maybe the tiniest bit a problem of technology: back then, in the pre-digital age, physical books had a somewhat vague relationship to time. If you were a lazy teen-ager with an eight-hundred-and-fifty-page tome to get through, this nebulousness could work against you. It could also provide one of reading’s greatest pleasures: the feeling of getting so sucked into a fictional world that when you finally looked up from your book, dazed, you’d lost all sense of how much time had passed.

As we’ve transitioned from print to screens, we’ve started clocking how long reading takes: Kindles track the “time left” in the books we’re reading; Web sites like Longreads and Medium include similar estimates with their articles (total reading time for “Anna Karenina”: eighteen hours and twenty-two minutes); in June, Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit, published a book with a stamp on the cover advertising it as a “5 hour read.” These features all feel a bit dystopian, like things Gary Shteyngart might have invented for his futuristic äppärät devices in “Super Sad True Love Story”; if Jonathan Franzen’s next novel gets stamped with a “10 hour read” label, it will confirm all his worst suspicions about what’s wrong with the modern world. But the fact is that little of what we read on the Web today is formatted in discrete pages, so it seems logical that, as reading online continues to supplant reading in print, hours and minutes will become increasingly useful units for measuring our progress.

. . . .

Apps like QuickReader, for example, use a highlighter mark that readers follow with their eyes as it moves from phrase to phrase at a designated speed. Apps like ReadQuick employ a technique called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (R.S.V.P.), displaying one or several words at a time in a fixed position at the center of the screen. Both of those apps allow you to control the speed, and to upload reading material from Web sites (mostly books for QuickReader, articles for ReadQuick), effectively transforming texts into adjustable word metronomes. At least one app, Acceleread, includes both the highlighter and R.S.V.P. techniques, and an interactive training course. At high speeds, both tools are mentally taxing, though R.S.V.P.—which allows readers to keep their eyes completely still, eliminating the time-consuming process of scanning them across the page and “fixating” on individual words—is also strangely passive; more than one person I’ve let sample ReadQuick has remarked that it feels a little like watching TV. (You can watch a demo of the app here.)

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Apps, Books in General

4 Comments to “Reading on the Clock”

  1. mmm is this available to see for us writers? That would be nice to add on the blurb…

  2. There used to be training programs that increased reading speed by focusing the eyes in certain ways. This speed-reading got you through an assignment pretty efficiently but did nothing much for comprehension of more complex concepts.
    Assigning reading time labels to books doesn’t really tell the customer anything. Do we buy books to be occupied for a certain amount of time? By whom is this time measured? Different people with widely differing backgrounds in education and reading habits will have very different reading speeds. So do the books. Some books require slow consumption, others you speed through. This depends on content, pacing, diction, and vocabulary and not just number of pages or word count.
    Sounds like a silly proposal to me.

    • Couldn’t have said it better.

      If there is a consumer concern about length (since you can’t look at a file before purchas and gauge the narrative length as you can with the physical book), then the answer, to me, is to educate consumer on what word counts mean, since ebook retailers commonly list the approximate word count, as do publishers/writers in at least some genres include it in the description.

  3. The bit about Kindles isn’t quite accurate. They do track “time remaining” for you, but it’s based on your current reading speed, not some hard-coded number. I tested it on my phone by pausing on a page for several minutes (okay, I got distracted) and when I went to the next page, the time remaining had actually increased.

    I absolutely love this feature. A lot of my pleasure reading is done while horizontal. When I start to drop off to sleep, I like to know whether I can make it to the end of a chapter before I lose consciousness or if I should just go ahead and put it down. It’s also nice when I’m expecting to be distracted, like when standing in line at the pharmacy.

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