Speed kills literature

28th March 2014 at 00:00

The lesson was going well until I suggested silent reading. The students looked up, horrified. Most of them would rather prise moist chewing gum off their desks than open a book. Since their idea of extended reading is whatever's trending on BuzzFeed, the prospect of studying a novel filled them with utter dread.

So you would think I'd be overjoyed to hear that someone has invented a sexy new reading app. Maybe Spritz could be the philosopher's stone that transforms reluctant readers into voracious bookworms. Its claims are certainly impressive. Spritz radically improves reading speeds by placing the letter that helps us to decode a word - the orbital recognition point (ORP) - in the same position in front of the eyes each time.

Apparently, the average person spends just 20 per cent of reading time processing content and the rest trying to locate the next ORP. Or, if you happen to be one of my students, 20 per cent of the time gazing longingly out of the window and the rest waving Of Mice and Men in the air, yelling "Miss, I've lost my place". By streamlining ORP identification, Spritz helps users to clock up reading speeds of up to 1,000 words per minute, making it possible to read a novel in an hour and a half.

In theory, I should embrace such innovation; surely anything that improves the nation's reading skills has to be good? But like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, I refuse to give in to the new. When the housekeeper is given a tea-making machine for Christmas, she sabotages it with a knife because she is addicted to the sensuous art of making a brew. Like a poet, Mrs Doyle describes the "playful splash of the milk as it hits the cup".

I'm the same when it comes to books. The reassuring roughness of the paper, the hamster smell of the pages and the faded notes in the margins all add to the pleasure of reading. I recently finished John Williams' extraordinary novel Stoner. The edition I had was a sombre, cloth-bound affair with a frayed silk ribbon as a bookmark, which chimed perfectly with the understated, tragic tale contained within its pages.

I'm worried that such apps will reduce reading to its lowest common denominator: comprehension. If you're racing through a narrative, the finish line becomes more compelling than anything you pass along the way. All the subtleties of storytelling - irony, pathos, indirect speech - are sacrificed to the need for speed. Read in this way, Pride and Prejudice is of little more worth than a Mills and Boon novel.

So I don't think I'll be turning to Spritz, even if it would enable my students to rattle through books. Far better that they read slowly, engaging with the author's craft, than turn into speedsters who read not wisely but too well. They need to be like Mrs Doyle, who adores "the misery of making tea", and see reading as a labour of love.

Beverley Briggs is a secondary school teacher from County Durham, England

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