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

October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

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.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

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.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


Follow us


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.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

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.