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

December 26 • 10:00 AM

5 Technology Trends to Watch Out for in 2015

Next year may finally be the year we stop using cash completely and leave the large social networks we’ve grown accustomed to behind (think Facebook and Twitter) as we seek out safer alternatives.


December 26 • 8:00 AM

Problems With Police Sanctions

Recent research about ways to deal with police misconduct, and some of its unintended consequences.


December 26 • 6:00 AM

Let Them Eat Quiche: How the Local Food Movement Swerved Right

The quest to localize fresh food is as much an anti-big-ag endeavor as it is an anti-regulatory one.


December 26 • 4:00 AM

The Mythology of Uniqueness

Places, like people, thrive on a self-perception of exceptionalism.


December 24 • 2:00 PM

Retiring a National Crisis

We’re in the middle of a national retirement savings crisis, and as more businesses fail to offer retirement savings options, it will only get worse. How can we reverse this trend? Illinois might have a solution.


December 24 • 12:00 PM

Ignoring One of the Big Problems With Charter Schools

A top official in the New York State Comptroller’s Office has urged regulators to require more transparency on charter-school finances. The response has been, well, non-existent.


December 24 • 10:00 AM

The Cookies of Christmas Past

Grandma’s recipes are always better than Martha Stewart’s.


December 24 • 8:00 AM

Digital Culture: Inside the Subreddit Obsessed With Solving the ‘Serial’ Case

Hamilton Verissimo, a software engineer from New Zealand, joined Reddit just to participate in Serialpodcast, a virtual home for tens of thousands of subscribers with theories and interpretations about the hit podcast.



December 24 • 6:00 AM

A Jewish Christmas

Chinese food, movies, and the assertion of an identity.


December 24 • 4:00 AM

We Need to Get Better at Password Protection

This whole Sony hack should teach us, above all else, a lesson on password security.



December 23 • 2:00 PM

The Paternity Leave Stimulus

Some policymakers (and most recently a Brazilian mayor) have argued that paternity leave policies would disrupt economic productivity. Quite the opposite, actually. In fact, it’s a policy that can boost economies, empower women, and make families happier.


December 23 • 12:00 PM

Why New York State Just Banned Fracking—and Why Others May Soon Follow

After years of delays and debate, Governor Andrew Cuomo decides that the risks outweigh the rewards.


December 23 • 9:40 AM

A Brief History of the Christmas Controversy

Can Christmas’ pagan roots explain its increasing secularization today?


December 23 • 8:00 AM

On Cuba and Baseball Capitalism

After a long wait, a Cuba-to-United States baseball pipeline appears to be on the horizon. That’s a good thing, right?


December 23 • 7:06 AM

Coming Soon: 5 Ways to Understand ISIS


December 23 • 6:00 AM

The Puzzle of the Written Word

In his new book, A Muse & A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, Peter Turchi explains the riddling experience of literature.


December 23 • 4:06 AM

Most Diabetic Seniors Think Health Tracking Apps Are a Good Idea

But almost none of them actually use apps to help manage their diabetes.


December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


Follow us


We Need to Get Better at Password Protection

This whole Sony hack should teach us, above all else, a lesson on password security.

Most Diabetic Seniors Think Health Tracking Apps Are a Good Idea

But almost none of them actually use apps to help manage their diabetes.

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

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.