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.
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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.)