In my first year of graduate school I discovered I was not as strong of a reader as I had fancied myself to be. I discovered the amount of pages to read every week was massive in comparison to undergrad, which wouldn’t be so bad if this were still high school English and I was reading Huckleberry Finn or watching the Leonardo DiCaprio adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. But instead, I found myself hunkering down with texts like Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I’m not surprised that within the first few weeks of my first semester of graduate school I found myself pleading for help on Facebook. I treated my peers like they were Google and stated simply and interrogatively: “It has taken me 4 hours to read 100 pages. Is this normal? Help!”
Among the advice bestowed upon me was a solitary link to a website for Spritz – a new app designed to help the fledgling reader reach his/her peak reading performance levels using technology that surpasses traditional reading methods, which, though proven to work for thousands of years, are burdensome and as a result are becoming quickly outdated. Spritz is designed to liberate the human eye by increasing the focalization of the “Optimal Recognition Point,” the magical spot in each word the brain encounters, registers, and then quickly obtains meaning before moving on to the next. As the Spritz website claims, it is the “saccade” – the movement of the eye that occurs as it moves from one word to the next – that slows down the reading process. The algorithm is thus as follows: Reduce the “saccade” effect; increase your reading speed.
The Original Spritz. (Also a proven reading aid and arguably the more pleasurable.)
The app accomplishes this in an almost painfully obvious way. Each word flashes on the screen sequentially, in keeping with a steady WPM that users set for themselves. According to the website, “Removing eye movement associated with traditional reading methods not only reduces the number of times your eyes move, but also decreases the number of times your eyes pass over words for your brain to understand them. This makes Spritzing extremely efficient, precise, convenient and comfortable.” I can see the meme now: A photo of a disgruntled but glowing youth, hands clutching the side of her head and crumpling her hair in despair, the caption ruthlessly blaring: MOVING MY EYES IS SO UNCOMFORTABLE. I CAN FEEL THEM SPASMING, OR AM I JUST BLINKING? – #firstworldproblems. Now our eyeballs, relieved of the burden of moving from left to right, can do the work of reading without actually working, much in the same way we can now do the work of sit-ups with our “Belly Burner Weight Loss Belts” without ever having to move a muscle.
It’s a comparison worth making for more than a laugh: Spritz is advertised as “the best way to engage with content in the digital age” and the results it boasts are claims that warrant scrutinizing. What is different about our “digital age” other than the fact that we prefer pixels to the paper page? We have our Nooks and iReaders, true enough, but does the digital version of Pride and Prejudice create the need to read faster simply because it’s digitized?
The creators of the app concede that there are other ways of improving one’s reading skills that have also been proven to work, but they require a lot of time, effort, and patience, unlike the magic of Spritz, which only requires less time, no effort, and seems to cater to the chronically impatient. Increasing one’s deep knowledge within a field, for example, helps to increase reading speed. But increasing deep knowledge is time-consuming because it requires reading, often books, and at the same measly WPM rate you can barely manage already, and therefore slowly, slower than the time it takes you to read a text message or scroll through Facebook status updates or invent a clever hashtag to your latest Sunday Selfie.
Scanning the reviews in Apple’s app store, I’ve found users who praise Spritz endlessly for the way it has allowed them to “keep up”––students in summer classes boast how efficiently they can speed through their reading rather than slog through it and what I suspect are businessmen are elated they’re able to “keep up with current company.” For these users at least, reading has been stripped of its former inherent pleasure and has instead become a taxing task endured for rewards extraneous to the act itself. To me it smacks of Marx’s notion of the “objectification of labor,” which argues that “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates” (71). In other words, the more “stuff” produced creates value in the thing being produced––the commodity (the iPhone, the latte, the Netflix)––and its reciprocal effect is the “devaluation of the world of men,” or the people who do the producing, to the status of commodity too (The Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 71). As a result, “labour’s product confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer” (71).
Although it’s important to keep in mind that Marx is speaking of industrialized labor in particular, this insight can also be applied to the phenomenon of Spritz: Instead of dealing with the deplorable conditions of factory labor directly, we are witnessing an era that is suffused in a highly increased value of the world of things and perhaps at the expense of what makes us human. We too become commodities or “objects,” are asked to maximize our performance in order to prove ourselves valuable to our economy. The fact that so many users cite their jobs in their reviews as the motivating factor behind their use of Spritz is a strong indicator of this. It isn’t for pleasure that they’re reading. For many avid users, reading itself appears to either have been, continues to be, or become “something alien.”
The obvious retort to this post is “So what? What’s wrong with getting ahead? Aren’t you English grad students always griping about how no one ever really reads anymore?” The answer is equally as obvious: Reading faster will not make you wiser. And as to the question of who should care, the answer should be everyone, given that the literacy rate in the United States hasn’t changed in the past ten years; 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level while 19% of newly minted high school graduates can’t read period. That statistic only accounts for illiteracy that admittedly are not Spritz’s demographic, which is precisely what makes its existence so vexing. Apps like Spritz offer the promise of improvement for a) people who don’t really need it, who are at a level where they can improve on the relative literacy they’ve already achieved and b) partially distract from the real impediment––a lack of investment in the humanities, English especially, specifically at the primary and secondary level and in low-income neighborhoods perpetually given the educational short shrift, while at the same time c) promoting a mode of reading that encourages a lack of critical thinking by emphasizing reading more instead of reading better, not to mention d) the fact that this reflects an overall obsession in our culture with “more, more, more” instead of “better” in a crucial time and place in which the collective desire for better is exactly what we need.
On a personal level, I came to a realization that soothed my performance-obsessed conscience. It was not that I was incapable of reading faster and therefore was somehow deficient; it was that I believed in the joy of reading slowly so as to understand completely, and to the extent I resisted the app and what it stood for, and to the extent I came to be aware of what reading had now become––a product of my own labor––I began to understand my own alienation.
I’m told often that I have a tendency to over-read situations as a symptom of my overdeveloped critical thinking skills, and while this may be true in certain (usually romantic) situations, I have found it to usually be beneficial. Like, for example, the time I found Spritz’s own study that supposedly proves the merits of the app, stating that reading comprehension using the app is “comparable” to that of traditional reading – roughly 82% of the text comprehended using traditional methods vs. 77% using Spritz. 77% could be construed as comparable to 82%, but only if you’re stretching it (or reading it on your Spritz app at 550 wpm). That’s a 5% difference but, you know, only if you care to take the time to notice.
Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms. When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.