Are you a fast reader?
It's a bigger question than it seems — a question of identity, even. For me, it touches off a kind of time travel: to Mrs. Sullivan's second-grade classroom and being divided into "bluebirds" and "robins"; to a sweaty high school and the nerve-wracking reading-comprehension section of the SAT; to my college roommate's idea of a cool-adjusted GPA, which is your GPA divided by your hours spent in the library. In school, we learned not just how to read, but how to judge ourselves as readers. Speed, as long as comprehension didn't suffer, was the thing.
And now there's a new product that promises to make us all bluebirds — better yet, turbo-bluebirds. Spritz, a Boston-based startup company, has launched a speed-reading technology that it hopes to license to websites, apps, e-book companies, mobile-device companies, and everyone else who puts text on screens. The concept is simple. For about 80 percent of the time we spend reading, Spritz maintains, our eyes are moving across the page or screen to find the next word. We waste time in the gaps. By flashing word after word in one spot, Spritz keeps your eye from having to find the next word; the word finds you. The font is black, the background white, and a single letter in each word is red, to help you focus. Text strobes at you one word at a time. The result is that your reading speed increases. Instant bluebird.
According to Spritz's in-house studies, reading comprehension doesn't suffer. You set the device to your "optimal reading speed" — and off you go. In a recent interview on WBUR, Spritz CEO Frank Waldman cited a British reporter who'd Spritzed "A Tale of Two Cities" with encouraging results. The possibilities — more speed, more books, more time — are alluring. In a Washington Post article, a reporter breathlessly wrote, "At 400 words a minute, 'The Catcher in the Rye' could be read in three hours and four minutes." What Holden Caulfield might make of such a calculation, he didn't say.
Sterner critics suggest both the 80 percent statistic and the comprehension studies are dubious. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume Spritz's studies are reliable. Does being a faster reader mean being a better reader? Should being a turbo-bluebird really be the goal? And what do we lose when forced to read at a constant speed?
When checking the baseball scores, I skim through the National League, but slow down for the Red Sox. When reading fiction, I speed up or slow down within sentences for similar reasons — for what interests me, for what hits close to home, for what I don't understand.
Put another way, books and websites don't come with posted speeds. But to perform the variety of reading acts we perform, we learn how to travel a diverse range of terrain on a diverse range of roads. We learn how to navigate both the highways and scenic mountain roads, including their curves and their straightaways. For instance, if you take a Shakespeare sonnet at constant highway speed, you'll likely crash, metaphors lacerating your forehead. Likewise, if you dawdle through People.com at mountain road speed, you may find yourself wondering about Katy Perry's inner life. Part of the pleasure of being a reader is finding your personal gear shift, experiencing the full range of roads your mind can travel, the scenic vistas and highways it can afford. You learn when to accelerate, when to hit reverse, even when to pause and wonder.
But can't we pause and wonder . . . faster?
That impulse may be part of the zeitgeist, but it's nothing new. In the late 1800s, a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor did something revolutionary: He brought a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel Works in Philadelphia. He recorded the speed of the machines and the workers, broke down every action into discrete steps, and analyzed the data for efficiency. He brought science, as he put it, into the workplace. He cut out the gaps. The workers, who felt dehumanized, didn't particularly like Taylor. But management did.
Today, speed and efficiency have become virtues well beyond the business world. Soylent, for instance, is a new kind of food, developed by a software engineer, to deliver the maximum amount of nutrition as quickly as possible. Why waste time eating? Luxury toilets now come equipped with "feminine and posterior washing and drying." Why waste time wiping? Apparently, old-fashioned digestion is still acceptable. It doesn't cut down on your productivity.
The question is whether this speed-greed belongs in every part of our lives. Under the aegis of saving time and expanding experience, Spritz actually narrows our range of experience by flattening all types of reading into one mode. It's life at one speed. It's every scenic road transformed into a highway. It's climate change for our inner climates; certain species will have to go.
So, much as I'd like to find the time to finish "In Search of Lost Time" before I die, I'll stick to reading the old-fashioned way. I like the gaps on the page, and the way those gaps find the gaps in me. I like the rainforest diversity of the human mind. I like the bluebirds and the robins. I like, after all these years of learning how to read, to be both.
Howard Axelrod is a writer living in Boston. He recently completed a memoir, "The Point of Vanishing," about his two years in solitude in northern Vermont.