The most significant new headline upgrade in Amazon’s latest Kindle app update, to version 4.18.0, was the inclusion of Word Runner speed reading. This, Amazon explains, is “a fun new way to read faster. It keeps your eyes focused on the center of the page and brings each word right to where your eyes already are.” That isn’t all, though. The other big upgrade, Bookerly, “a new reading font from Amazon,” is also “designed for digital screens so reading is faster and easier with less eye strain.” With all this stress on speed, is it time to pause a moment and recall the virtues of slow reading?
Amazon’s inclusion of Word Runner isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or a sign of Amazon’s priorities. It’s opt-in, and readers who don’t want it can safely ignore it. Cynics might also speculate that it does Amazon no harm to enable readers to reader faster, so it can sell them more books, but that feels like a snark too far. Feature creep and software bloat may be an annoyance in the Kindle app, but Word Runner is hardly the worst offender in what’s already a pretty overweight app – currently running at 145 MB for the app alone, plus almost 78 MB of app data, on my Lenovo A7-10.
Slow reading, though, like slow food, has grown into a whole movement, that extols the virtues of lingering over a text to appreciate its aesthetic qualities or comprehend its arguments more fully. This relates to close reading, “now a fundamental method of modern criticism.” And it’s obviously a completely different approach to the Word Runner tactic of serving up texts one word at a time, as fast as you can swallow them.
Of course, there’s plenty of cases where fast assimilation of text may be just what you need, with few sacrifices. Technical manuals, perhaps, or potboilers that you can skip-read with little fear of losing out. But you only need look back to the 2010 Newsweek article by Malcolm Jones, “Slow Reading: An Antidote for a Fast World?” to find comprehensive arguments for taking it slow. There, Jones cites John Miedema, author of Slow Reading, to prove that “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that we are all reading too much too fast these days. Yes, we’re drowning in information, but, clearly, reading faster and faster is not the way out of the deep end.”
The Word Runner method, and the whole speed reading approach of upping your reading tempo, may also mess with your appreciation of the internal pacing of a text. Obviously, this isn’t an issue if you’re reading some technical manual or other text that’s chiefly about information. But take, as just one example, the use of pacing in the Aubrey–Maturin series of historical novels by Patrick O’Brian. There, the tempo of a sea chase over hundreds of leagues of ocean, in the course of a whole chapter, is integral to enjoyment of the whole narrative. And O’Brian is a master at wrapping up the conclusion of an entire novel in the last few sentences, and holding the whole outcome in suspense until then. Readers can probably think of their own examples, but I don’t need to underline how Word Runner and speed reading as a whole could interfere with them.
Does the Kindle app have any features to facilitate slow and close reading, then? There’s X-Ray, which “lets you explore the ‘bones of a book’.” – though this strikes me more as prepackaged Googling than a true detailed comprehension aid. There’s Popular Highlights, which can direct your attention to the most popular and highly regarded parts of a book. But to my mind, the best features are the simplest – Bookmarks and the convenience of simply having the text with you there so you can go back to it again and again. And dip into it whenever you have a spare moment, without having to cram your reading time into whenever you can sit down with the pages spread out in front of you.
Anyone who wants to read more on the background of close reading, including its educational importance as far down as Common Core materials, can look here, and here, and here. And if it’s important enough for the National Endowment for the Humanities, it merits looking at in contrast to the Word Runner word-churn approach.