‘Estimated reading times’ on articles are antithetical to real reading
I’ve got a bone to pick with “estimated reading times.” You know the ones I mean, those temporal cues that are increasingly popping up on magazine and newspaper websites indicating how long it will take to read a given piece. “3 min. read” or “7 min. read,” these markers inform us, accompanied by a small clock face icon.
They’re presented as an aid to readers, but, really, they are antithetical to the way reading works.
Why? Let’s start with the obvious reason, which is commodification. “The average person,” Akshat Biyani wrote last May on the marketing website Martech, “spends almost seven hours a day viewing internet-connected content.”
Talk about an audience engagement opportunity.
Biyani’s piece continues, “Showing site visitors how many minutes it takes to read your article can help convince them that the time commitment will be less than what they originally thought.”
Yet that’s the problem in a nutshell. When I read, I don’t want less but rather more. I want to immerse, whether in a piece of reporting or a novel or a book of poems. I want to engage with the world by, paradoxically, removing myself from it, for however long it takes.
I don’t read, in other words, as a client, or even a consumer, but rather as a partner. As every dedicated reader understands, ours is an active art. “The unread story,” Ursula K. Le Guin once observed, “is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp.”
Only a reader, she is saying, can make a piece of writing come to life.
Of course, I recognize from my own experience that we are always gauging where we are in some sense; reading is physical, tactile, as much as it is anything. We adjust our eyes, our bodies, we are aware of ourselves as afloat in the river of the text. We can tell at a glance how far along we are in a book or magazine, how many pages we’ve completed, how many we have left. So, too, with the sidebar scroll on a website. A quick look shows us where we are.
The difference is that these are strategies we develop on our own terms. They are not imposed from outside. If reading is a singular experience — and it is — then there can be no one-size-fits-all approach. Even for the individual, the notion of an estimated reading time is illusory at best. I read at a different pace depending on a host of factors, including how much time the text needs and how much time I have.
A couple of summers ago, I spent a month or more working my way through Brandon Shimoda’s “The Grave on the Wall,” a dense, allusive memoir that is part eulogy for the author’s grandfather and part meditation on what it means to be Japanese American. It’s the kind of book I could read only in short bursts, 10 or 20 pages at a sitting. I kept needing to stop and reflect. “The average reading speed of most adults,” the website Iris informs us, “is around 200 to 250 words a minute,” or about two minutes for each page. In the case of Shimoda, my rate was likely half that, which was fine, since that was what the language on the page required.
By contrast, when, early last year, I read Michael Connelly’s “The Dark Hours,” I blazed through the entire novel in a single day.
This is not a reflection on quality. Both Shimoda and Connelly are masterful at what they do. Each, though, requires their own level of engagement. Each asks us to read them differently.
Something similar is the case with readers, who operate at different rates, in different ways. If I, as an individual, can’t be homogenized in terms of my reading times, how can such estimates apply collectively?
The whole thing reminds me of Blinkist, which launched in 2012 and offers brief synopses of books for people who don’t have time to read. “Powerful ideas — 15 minutes at a time,” the website promises, yet is this really reading at all? It’s not the tempo per se that’s the issue; 15 minutes can be plenty in the right circumstance. It’s the focus on efficiency. What’s best about reading, after all, is that it is inefficient, that we come and go, we shilly and we shally, we move according to our own pace.
Think of it as a relationship, which is to say fluid, ever changing — or it should be — and outside the realm of marketing or algorithms.
What I mean is that reading is not a matter of goods and services. It is a way of being in the world. And, as someone who has long defined myself in regard to written language, I don’t want my reading mediated.
I’d prefer to experience it for myself.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.