Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


We Read It

phone-reading

(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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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