Why “minutes to read” is wrong
I originally wrote this over on Medium a while back, but for reasons too boring and idiosyncratic to go into, I wanted to post it here as well.
So I downloaded iOS7 a few days ago, and I noticed that the icon on the home screen for the clock actually tells time. That is, you can see the excited red second hand busily crop-circling its way around the clock. I don’t think this icon has ever moved like this before, though I could be mistaken. I remember when I discovered that the calendar app actually indicated the day you were currently living through, I thought it was a remarkably useful mirroring of the “real world,” as it’s commonly referred to.
But that also got me thinking about reading and timing and how many of the current “reading platforms,” for lack of a better phrase, indicate the amount of time it will take to read a piece of writing. So far I think this happens here on Medium (hullo, you strange publication-platform centaur!), the new “Netflix-for-books” app Oyster, and Readability. Time to read has also become a sorting feature for the latest update to Instapaper, though I’m not sure if it gives you an actual minute estimate. My point is that “minutes to read,” as a functionality, seems to be slowly growing as a standard, and I think this is wrong.
Why? First, there is my admittedly liberal arts-y objection to timing reading: that’s not what reading is supposed to be about. Reading is about escaping the clock or stopping time, not racing to beat some spectral average. And while I admit that this is a bit of a rarefied concern — one could simply ignore the “minutes to read” information — I do think it puts the emphasis on the wrong metric. Reading should be about the pleasure of reading. It’s not a baking recipe. If you are enamored or perplexed by a certain paragraph, then you should take a long as you need to stare at that paragraph. It’s like when I was in high school and was delighted to see that I was only supposed to read three poems for homework that night. Done in six minutes. Of course, 20 years later I still haven’t figured out what those poems were about; their sedimentary knowledge has outlasted the changeable weather of my attention.
This points to a larger concern with how reading is often discussed: as a way to learn empathy, as a preventative against the flood of age-related mental deterioration, as the best way to be informed about the world, etc. Reading, of course, can be all those things but what gets lost is how the act of reading itself is what is primarily pleasurable. Sure, there are all these sub-benefits, but the primary joy lies in decoding these strings of letters and sometimes feeling the sound of the voice behind them. So often reading, as a human activity, suffers from the nutritional grid we place upon it — subdivisions of one’s daily allowance of information.
I admit that part of my opposition comes from my own slowness as a reader. I am horribly slow; I think my average is about 30 pages of prose an hour. I haven’t timed myself in a long while (and god forbid I actually do so again just to provide data for this little essay) and I’m wary of sharing this information in public. I have friends who can read circles around me, chewing through books like self-powered lawn mowers; all they have to do is hold on. I wish I could say that my pace was part of a deliberate Slow Food-like campaign to savor what’s really worth enjoying in life, but the truth is that I am merely slow. Think fast! The ball’s already hit me in the chest. So when I see “minutes to read” near my little “read later” article, I feel like an intellectual jock is glaring at me, laughing.
However, despite my own read-speed insecurities, and despite the fact that as a reading duration metric, it’s simply inaccurate, I do realize that the “minutes” issue is a tangible attempt to deal with a usability problem. (Whenever I hear the word “usability,” I can’t help but think of drug paraphernalia.) As our reading moves device-ward, as column inches and finger-feel fall away as the constant way to gauge how much one has left in a book or magazine, we need a different method to measure the length of a piece of writing. I will be the first to admit that I’m not smart enough to figure this solution out. Part of me likes how the scrolling bar in some browsers shrinks proportionally to indicate how much scrolling one has left, but this also becomes quickly meaningless if it’s a seriously long document.
I feel as if there is some icon out there waiting to be developed that will solve this problem. Relatedly, who thought up the “hamburger icon” and does she or he get to retire now and receive regular royalties for making our lives infinitesimally but still perceptibly easier? Can she, or whomever, collectively or individually, solve this abstract sizing problem, graphically render it in a condensed form that both makes thinking easier by making it almost unnecessary?
My favorite solution to this problem thus far is the Kindle for iPhone app, which shows both a horizontal “completion bar” (I’m sure this has some technical name) as well as a percentage number for how much you’ve read. Now I actually like the percentage number. It turns your reading activity into data, to be sure, but it’s more useful, more applicable. It shows how much of the word pie you’ve eaten, not how late you are to the party that is the next article in your list of homework. Of course, even this number is usually inaccurate,since the end-of-book information, like an index, is included in this percentage, but that part of the book doesn’t count as the “finish line” to my hyperventilating mind. Let me know when I can truly, honestly stop reading.
And perhaps that’s the key to this reading anxiety. I wish I could say, when considering my own reading habits, that I am never concerned with how long it takes to read something. But in fact I am obsessed with the length of what I’m reading. I’ll often skip ahead in a magazine just to see how much longer I have to endure this round of pleasure. What I need then is a way to soothe the reading-time anxiety in a way that makes me feel better about the anxiety’s existence and doesn’t actively stoke it.
Surely, that’s not too much to ask?