The very idea of reading can sometimes come off as antiquated as the shelf of leather-bound, gold-leafed “classics” at the local library – gathering dust while everyone else swipes busily through Catcher in the Rye on the glowing screen of an iPad.
Some might sneer at that more modern take on reading, though, wondering aloud why it can’t be like how it was in the old days: taking time alone to read in quiet reflection, feet clad in slippers and hands curled around a steaming mug of tea.
When it comes down to it, though, does how you read truly matter? Do you absorb Shakespeare’s meaning any better in your reading nook than you would holding your Kindle with one hand while cramming a donut into your mouth with the other on your morning subway commute?
Style over substance, if you want to look at it that way, can be a major sticking point. The same goes for the methods in which we read – and if you take the word of Diane Shipley, writing for The Guardian, as to whether or not that method is actually important, the answer is a resounding “maybe.”
In Shipley’s June 23 piece, “Condensed, or just dense? The apps that turn books into 15-minute reads,” she recounts her experience with one of these condensed-reading apps, an Android-compatible venture called Blinkist, through which she read “A Brief History of Time,” by Dr. Stephen Hawking. Her experience was largely positive – the app included the rudiments of Hawking’s book, like “the Big Bang theory and black holes,” but had nary a mention of the more head-scratching ideas like string theory, and the information was neatly compacted into 14 “blinks,” or phone-screen-sized summaries.
But why choose something like a ponderous tome on physics and the origins of the universe to test out the idea of “condensed” reading? Why didn’t Shipley choose a classic novel, like Pride and Prejudice? Parsing scientific information, even at its most complex, into smaller chunks can feel a little like making flashcards to study for a test – or at least that’s an argument that could be made against the validity of these apps. Shrink down the intricacies of Pride and Prejudice, others would say, and you’ve convinced me. Otherwise, take a hike.
Shipley doesn’t ignore that fact. She concedes that condensed reading apps are best for things like non-fiction, research-based material or even self-help books, noting that with the latter, readers can simply pick out useful tips. In the case of something like Hawking’s “Time,” she agrees that “it might be the only way to get information to stick.”
It would be much more difficult to use these type of apps for fiction, she says, because “they’re as much about voice as ideas.” That’s an important point to consider in the argument either for or against condensed reading, although Shipley also notes that publishers have been trying to make fiction more easily digestible for years – Reader’s Digest has been doing it since 1950 with condensed version of popular contemporary books.
The most provocative issue raised by Shipley’s article, however, doesn’t necessarily concern what type of reading should or can be done on condensed reading apps, it’s a question of what’s more important: how we read or that we’re reading at all? It’s not something that we have a lot of time for these days – and something that’s increasingly harder to make time for, what with the advent of a little something called Netflix – but according to research done by Joosr, another condensed reading app, 6 out of 10 people wish they read more. Perhaps any format in which people read, regardless of subject matter, is a step in the right direction. Shipley’s article cites a study from the Literacy Trust that 5.2 million people in the United Kingdom are functionally illiterate; in the United States, which has a higher population, ProLiteracy reports that a staggering 36 million adults can’t read above a third-grade level. Given these troubling numbers, Shipley asks, can we really afford to look down on how people read – or what condensed reading apps do to their subject matter?