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Can apps help you read with speed?

Shorter, faster, duller

Want to read but just can’t find the time? Jonathan Beckman tries out the apps promising to get you in and out of a book in the blink of an eye

Want to read but just can’t find the time? Jonathan Beckman tries out the apps promising to get you in and out of a book in the blink of an eye

Jonathan Beckman | April/May 2017

The printed book works very well. It’s cheap, portable and surprisingly waterproof (as any number of leathery and buckled volumes on my bookshelf testify). But since the modern world is incapable of leaving a decent technology alone without trying to improve it, there are a number of apps which seek to refine the reading experience.

Joosr offers summaries of books that can be read in 20 minutes. Many are aimed at aspiring business moguls and have titles like “The Lean Start-Up: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses”. The first book I opened was Stephen Covey’s bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. This is precisely the kind of book Joosr excels in distilling – one whose title announces exactly what you expect to get out of it. I very swiftly learn that I need to “truly” listen to people (and there I was thinking I could get away with glazing over) and place myself in win/win situations (reluctantly, I will give up cricket).

“The Power Broker” by Robert Caro proves the limits of Joosr’s approach. It’s a 1,300-page life of Robert Moses, the power-crazed city planner who plunged expressways through 20th-century New York. Joosr barely touches on the origins of Moses’s implacable will to power or his callous disregard for those who stood in his way – in short, the reasons why you would choose to read a biography of this towering but flawed figure in the first place. Instead, it squeezes teachable moments from his career. Some of these, written in prose so bland you could bottle it as baby food, are banal – “Moses’s story shows how easy it is to slip into abusing your power”; others simply terrifying misreadings. His appointment to a dozen municipal bodies “is a useful reminder that not all authority arrives via standard routes”, rather than a warning about handing over all the levers of power to unelected megalomaniacs. Joosr is not aimed at people who like to get lost in a book, but at those who wish to escape it as quickly as possible.

Blinkist offers a similar service, promising to shave an extra five minutes off. I pull off the shelf Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”. It starts unpromisingly: “It’s hard to imagine a more arresting and thought-provoking sight than a starry night sky,” a claim that could reasonably be applied only to someone born and raised inside a telescope (the original, by contrast, begins with an anecdote about a woman accosting Bertrand Russell with her theory that the universe rests on an infinitely high stack of giant turtles). To be fair, Blinkist’s summary explains some fundamental concepts lucidly. Unwisely, though, it also tries to extract relevant lessons from recondite material. According to Blinkist, had I a twin brother and were he to have been brought up on a mountain, one of us would be very slightly younger than the other. I’ve wracked my brains for the practical ramifications. It’s probably something to do with inheritance tax.

The other means of shucking the joy out of reading in the quest for efficiency is the speed reader. Many of the apps available are powered by Spritz, a tool that flashes words, one at a time, onto your screen. Looking for something I probably ought to read but have no desire to, I downloaded the Brexit White Paper. Set at a robotic but gentle 250 words per minute, Spritz brought out the full platitudi­nousness of the prime minister’s boasts of bringing the country together. At 400 words per minute, I was still absorbing information, but if you fall off the wagon at that speed, it’s a scramble to jump back on. Spritz got me through an interminal section on the continuity of laws. I may not have caught all the detail but, hey, the government is not going to complain. At 1,000 words per minute, I was flying. True, I didn’t know much about anything, but aren’t we through with experts? I was filled with Faragist derring-do: Brexit has never seemed easier. Those Eurocrats should download Spritz post-haste.

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