Reading a Book Takes Time—Deal With It
New startups try to make reading fit your commute, but books deserve better
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I f I had a nickel for every time I thought “I wish I could just spend the whole day reading,” I’d buy myself a new bookshelf for all the books I haven’t had time to read yet. But it seems not everyone wants reading to take up more of their time. Last week, Vox reviewed Serial Box, a subscription-based publishing platform which uses the structure and logistical scaffolding of TV production to publish “better than binge-watching” serial books. They promise to deliver “fiction that fits your life,” according to their website.
Here’s how it works: the books are released in serial seasons, like a TV show, and written by teams of writers, like a TV show. The serial season is released in “episodes” (i.e. chapters) which you can buy separately, or you can buy a subscription to the whole “season” (i.e. novel). Each book is written by several authors who each contribute 30,000 word chunks to the season. Once the season is finished, it’s bound and printed like a novel.
The founders argue that the inspiration for their company model came from the serialized forms of fiction in the 19th century a la Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but they also make it clear that they are trying to make books more efficient. Serial Box turns the book into a quick, consumable, commute-sized commodity: each “episode” in the serial season is set up so it only takes about 40 minutes to read, in order to line up with the average back-and-forth commute time. As Molly Barton, one of the founders of Serial Box, told Vox: “I was aware that for many people, reading a book can feel rather slow and daunting compared to other media forms at this point. It’s harder to fit into your life.”
I say malarkey. You only have 40 minutes to read a book? Get a bookmark! Don’t worry — the book will still be there when you get back. Reading is supposed to be slow. And it’s okay if it’s daunting. Books take a long time to write, and the good ones deserve more than a morning commute time to fully digest and understand. Books also have the capacity to take you out of time and space and make you miss your subway stop, and that’s a good thing, too. The right story give us permission to get lost when we need to. Indeed, Constance Grady reported the Serial Box books she’s read did not enchant: “I couldn’t lie on the beach and lose myself in it because it actively did not want me to do so.” Is our obsession with hurrying up getting in the way of our having fun?
You only have 40 minutes to read a book? Get a bookmark!
Even worse, is it making us forget that reading was supposed to be fun in the first place? Choosing your reading material because it fits your commute turns reading into an efficient, productive use of commute time, another experience forced to bow down to the god of efficiency. In other words, reading becomes a task. Are we reading because we feel we “have to?” Or do we feel guilty about taking time for leisure and pleasure, so we need our leisure and pleasure to be measurable like the rest of our lives? Finishing a book does feel like an accomplishment, and I wonder if Serial Box and other companies like it are feeding on that feeling. Does getting through a 40-minute “episode” of a “season” of reading make us feel like we’ve achieved something, like we’ve gotten through a task, and therefore makes us feel validated in taking the time to read?
Serial Box is, at least, invested in creating something new, but there are other companies fully devoted to shaving down the time it takes to get through books already in circulation. The mission for these businesses belies the reality that people want reading to feel more like a knowledge download. For those who want to be “well-read” but simply don’t have the time for all that reading, there’s Instareads, which boasts 15-minute summaries of bestselling titles so you can “Instantly unlock the knowledge contained in the world’s best nonfiction books” and “Be Efficient.” And BookRags (among other relatives of Cliff Notes) promises to boost your intellectual brand with summaries of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power and Isabel Allende’s City of Beasts available for only $9.99. There are independent publishers like Book Summary on Amazon with 30-minute book reviews available for $2.99 because “your time is precious.” They boast: “We have done all the hard work for you, all you have to do is benefit from it! To your success!” As Riane Konc writes, these zippy summaries may be a great solution for books with 15 minutes worth of ideas — the kinds of books that no one needs to read in the first place — but they are not going to bring anyone any closer to enlightenment.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m fully in favor of short fiction, and serial fiction, and other approaches to storytelling that break out of the mold of the doorstopper codex book. I’d love to see more adaptations of the serial form — I’m even down with the concept of episodic storytelling delivered by Serial Box and other companies like it. For example, Tap by Wattpad incorporates text messages, phone calls, and other interactive elements into the digital series of stories they create. And DailyLit delivers books to your inbox in installments, to help you make the time for the books you’ve never thought you had time for. I also think hybridized concepts for storytelling that use existing forms of media to make something new are really cool; a lot of podcasts playing with the boundaries of the form come to mind, like Serial, Welcome to Night Vale, and The Message, and Limetown. It’s exciting to think about how the ways we read will change over time. Let’s keep messing with the concept of reading and storytelling even more!
But please, quit trying to sell me books that are specifically geared towards making reading take up less time. Let’s be bold and admit to not reading a book when we haven’t had time to read it yet, rather than pretend we’ve read a book when we’ve scrolled through a 15-minute summary. Let’s be willing to admit that some books simply aren’t worth our time, too. Because the truth of the matter is — there are a lot of books out there, and we are all busy as hell. But not everything should be digested, processed, or experienced within the window of a morning commute. Go pick up a book , maybe even a heavy one — read a few pages now, get lost in it for the day, or read it over the course of the next six months. Go back and reread the stuff that didn’t make sense the first time around. It’s okay to take your time.