Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

We Read It


(Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock)

In Praise of Slow Reading

• April 25, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock)

A new reading app turns one classic and one current novel into a pair of serializations. Could it be a way to overcome our very modern tendency to skim?

All the professor asked was that we take apart our copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was an undergraduate course on Modernism, and making it new in this case meant making the novel more readable by dividing it into portable sections since each week’s lectures would focus on only one or two chapters.

The professor’s suggestion was, I worried, an act of iconoclasm, which troubled me not only because of what I thought about the integrity of books generally, but also about the cost of this one specifically: I had just paid 20 dollars for the thing that I was being instructed to cut into pieces with a utility knife.

But reading the 18 episodes of Ulysses one by one was the best way of doing it, and having those highly portable sections made the undertaking easier. Those individual sections meant not only resisting the urge to read ahead, since you only ever had one chapter, but also experiencing some of what it was like to read the novel in its original serialized form.

An alternative to the speed reading craze, the app addresses the concerns of neuroscientists who warn our brains are adapting to online reading by foregoing deep, meaningful reading for superficial skimming.

I thought of those weekly episodes of Ulysses as I played with Rooster, a new reading app for mobile phones. For just under five dollars a month, the app delivers two titles, one contemporary and one classic, in daily installments. Users can choose how many times a week they receive the installments, and what time of day they arrive: morning, noon, afternoon, evening, or midnight. Each portion of text is designed to take around 15 minutes to read, short enough for the average straphanger’s commute but long enough for a coffee break. You can even read ahead if your train is late or your lunch companion is tardy.

I know only one person who successfully undertakes serious reading on her mobile phone (I once watched her read War and Peace while getting a pedicure), so many will like Rooster’s reading interface even more than its installment plan: Designed specifically for smartphones, the text is clear and clean, while the menu for moving between installments and titles is uncomplicated and intuitive. An alternative to the speed reading craze, the app also addresses the concerns of neuroscientists who warn our brains are adapting to online reading by foregoing deep, meaningful reading for superficial skimming.

There are also only ever the two titles, so unlike the labyrinthine Library of Alexandria offered by e-readers or tablets, Rooster is more like settling into the cozy nook of a friend’s home where on the one armchair you have the classic you’ve been meaning to read and on the other a new title that was chosen carefully by the host. The first pairing was Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor (nine installments) and Rachel Kadish’s I Was Here (17 installments).

Rooster will not replace your library of e-books or satisfy the cravings of more voracious readers. A Keurig for novels, it dispenses single servings that will not meet the needs of those who need a full pot of coffee at all times. It will likely please those who long for an alternative to 2048 or who want something more substantial than tweets to read as they wait to pay for their groceries. The installments are carefully portioned serving sizes to satiate the hunger of the hurried masses carrying only their mobile phones.

As much as Rooster is meant to combat the boredom and loneliness of life’s betwixt and between times, I suspect it will also appeal to those who long to read communally. Rooster turns novels into a daily lectionary, which can facilitate conversation across distances and diverse schedules. Some will say that Rooster betrays the baggy monster that is the novel by making it into something too piecemeal, while others will protest that they can control their own consumption without regulated portion control. But the app doesn’t prescribe this episodic way of reading, it merely acknowledges that this is the way many of us read now and seeks to adapt longer, more serious works to that format.

Book clubs often fail because of their awkward timeline: Some read too quickly and forget what they have read while others do not finish and risk spoiling their attempts by convening for premature discussion. Through its daily installments, Rooster can offer a convenient syllabus, like a college seminar, or scheduled programming, like weekly episodes of a sitcom, that facilitate collective discussion around the text. The app even outsources the difficulty of settling on book club selections, leaving readers only the choice between the two titles.

Rooster will appeal to a certain kind of appetite for fiction. This literary diet will not be for everyone. But the emancipation of digital reading habits, like those of the printed book before them, allows us to choose the way we read. Just as some prefer edited collections and anthologies, some will enjoy having their fictions selected for them each month, apportioned in daily servings that arrive at appointed times that make them easier to consume.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.

October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.

October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.

October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.

October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.

October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.

October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.

October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.

October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.

October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”

October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?

October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.

October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.

October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.

October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?

October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.

October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.

October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.

October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.

October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.

Follow us

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.