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In Praise of Slow Reading

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?
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(Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock)

(Photo: RossHelen/Shutterstock)

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.