What to Read Next

Read This as Fast as You Can!

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
March 11, 2014

Do you wish you’d already finished reading this column?

If so, I won’t take it personally. As I zip around the web all day, saving interesting-sounding articles to Instapaper, or clipping news relevant to some topic I’m researching into Evernote, I often feel like what I really want is not to read all this material — but rather to have read it.

As you’ll learn by actually reading to the end of this piece, that urge isn’t a wholly new thing. But max-capacity reading is in vogue now. In the last couple of weeks, for instance, a new app called Spritz attracted lots of attention with a promise to “triple your reading speed,” and a browser extension called Spreeder has been praised by vocal fans.

Other speed-reading apps to emerge in the past year or so include Outread and Syllable, among others. Most of these tools seem to strive to increase reading speed by reducing “subvocalization” — the tendency to “say” what we’re reading to ourselves, in our heads — by using technology to tweak the way we see words.

The Spritz method.

This zip-read outbreak echoes the increasingly popular use of “reading time” promises on sites from Byliner to Slate — announcing right next to the headline how long it will supposedly take (a minute? 20 minutes?) to get through a given story.

Slate, March 10, 2014

Similarly, Kindles inform readers how much reading time they have left in a given book or chapter. And as Marketwatch recently noted, they also have a less-celebrated feature that allows readers to toggle between reading and listening to a text to let a person “shuffle the pages of books into every spare minute of his day: listen for 30 minutes while jogging, thumb through a few pages on his iPhone while waiting at the doctor’s office,” and so on.

Taken together, these developments speak to some kind of hunger for textual efficiency — combining the fetishization of having read with a certain impatience for actual reading.

And perhaps that adds up to a classic example of technology deployed to solve problems technology caused. The web has obviously given us more to read than ever — and counterintuitively that has turned out to include an explosion of notably long texts. I wrote about the irritating use of #longread as a badge of honor last year; James Bennet and Jonathan Mahler have made similar arguments. The long and the short of it is that we’re all looking for a life raft in a digital ocean of words. No wonder the New Impatience also manifests itself in the increasingly popular shorthand “tl;dr” — too long; didn’t read.

That said, it’s worth noting that the first place I ever encountered an estimated reading time notification was in the Feb. 5, 1938, issue of Libertymagazine. No, I’m not quite that old — I bought it in a thrift store a few years ago and did so in part specifically because I thought the reading-time gimmick was kind of funny, particularly in its precision. (“8 minutes, 25 seconds” for an essay about parental respect; “21 minutes, 40 seconds” for a true-crime tale.)

Liberty magazine, Feb. 5, 1938

At the time, I smirked at past generations and their comical longing for quasi-scientific efficiency, addressed by what was almost certainly BS. Little did I know I was glimpsing the cutting edge in managing information overload!

Actually, the speed-reading app craze has a bit of a back-to-the-future vibe, too: Evelyn Wood became a household name decades ago by way of her thrillingly named Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics method. Perhaps that hunger to get reading over with has been around as long as reading itself?

More to the point, it turns out that a technological solution to this dilemma has been around a long time, too. The Post-Digital Publishing Archive recently offered up a look at a tech-minded writer named Bob Brown, who all the way back in 1930 proposed a “reading machine” that would enable humans to “see words machine-wise” — to basically inhale vast chunks of text in an instant.

His hypothetical device was meant to replace the book — something that would allow Brown to “read hundred thousand word novels in 10 minutes if I want to,” he explained, “and I want to.”

His dream “reader” — unconvincing prototype above, via P-DPA — was never successfully built (although Brown sort of addressed the ideas it embodied by way of several … books). But it sounds to me as if he yearned for a way of “reading” analogous to the way a computer “reads” code: processing it instantaneously.

Is that, fundamentally, what we yearn for now? Possibly so. It’s even been suggested that Brown can be considered the godfather of the e-reader.

Or maybe he was just a quasi-Dada provocateur. Either way, his proposal was as much a response to changing technology as a wish for technology to change. “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age,” he declared, pointing to such newfangled media as cinematic “talkies.” It’s a complaint that reminds me of … us.

As it happens, I came across that P-DPA item weeks ago, and it languished in Instapaper until I got going on this column and dug it out. I’m so pleased I finally took the time to read it.

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