Web and social media sites have been abuzz about Spritz (http://www.spritzinc.com/), a new app that allows readers to read words at a phenomenal rate and is akin to a technology called RSVP (Rapid Serial Visual Presentation). When I saw this, I thought, “Wow! It’s going to revolutionize reading.” We’ve been reading the same way (tracking words across page be it left-to-right, right-to-left or other) for thousands of years. But the digital age is full of amazing advances, and Spritz appears set to provide another.
Obviously, for those of us who have a monstrous reading backlog, the first impression is that this is a good thing. Personally, I’ve whittled away at my hardcover and paperbacks to the point that they fit in one set of shelves, and in the process I’ve amassed a library of e-books that I can carry around wherever I go. Along with a hefty wish list and the ever-present list of upcoming titles. So, imagine being able to hum right on through this library with this handy-dandy app!
But hold on. Critics argue that comprehension goes down the tubes the more words you try to jam into your brain all at once. Spritz gives you the option to slow things down or speed them up, from 250 words/minute all the way up to an eye-blistering 600. But can your brain actually grasp what is going on at those speeds? And perhaps more importantly: would you want it to?
One of my favorite authors is Guy Gavriel Kay. I don’t often re-read books (see backlog + lists above) but I’ve re-read Tigana and A Song for Arbonne several times. Two of my favorite books ever. But one of the things I love most about Kay’s books is his style. Truly, reading one of his books feels as though I’m at the feet of a bard. I never blast through a Kay book. I digest them, piece by piece, enjoying the nuance, the language, the absolute splendor in his voice. I simply cannot imagine capturing all of that by cramming it into my brain at lightning speeds.
Let’s then take the occasional arresting moment. I’m currently reading Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns. I came across a passage (and I don’t want to share it because of mild spoilers) that made me stop. The sentence was fantastic. I re-read it. I tweeted the author about it. It was really that good. Had I whizzed by it at 300 words per minute I might never have given it a second thought nor the author his due.
But to the point. Let’s assume that this catches on with readers. To assume it won’t is to make the same mistake many publishers did when they claimed digital distribution would be a fad. The world is all about speed. Technology changes at a rapid pace. You get your news moments after it happens; you tweet with your friends about what you’re doing right now; and you carry tomes of books on devices that weigh a few ounces. So let’s assume that a few years from now a good portion of the reading world is flying through books using this or some other speed reading app.
Should writers think about that when they sit down to write?
The answer could very well be yes.
Certainly as a writer of speculative fiction, I’m already considering what my reader can envision in his head. For many speculative fiction authors, world-building is part of the art. Can you see the world I’m trying to build? Is the magic system (if there is one) complex enough that I need to describe it in detail? Setting becomes so critical, because when I say “Athynea falls” … I need to describe Athynea to you, why it was important to the characters who defended it. On the other hand, if I say “New York falls” then you have a picture of New York in your head.
So the art of world-building, of telling a tale in an otherworld, becomes one of imparting the vision of that world to the reader. Think of Lord of the Rings. Would Tolkien have needed to spend more time describing Minas Tirith if he’d known you were pulling a fly-by? He might have. Because to me, the need for you to comprehend my world, to grasp its rules, is critical to the tale. So in a world where readers are reading at 500 wpm but perhaps not comprehending at 500 wpm, I need to describe my world and my rules in simpler terms or in even more detail.
And let’s just throw in a brief mention of names. I’m used to creating worlds with strange names: Athynea, Darramor, Logenbressa, Elryssen. To a reader catching these strange names for the first time as they fly by, the import of their name and their place in the world could very well be missed. And if so, what should I do, as an author, to fix that name and that place in the reader’s mind, regardless of whether they’re reading at normal speed or high speed? More description, simpler terms.
Reading comprehension is obviously critical regardless of what you’re reading. But there are layers to it in speculative fiction that demand the author be precise. If the law of physics is being changed, if the world I’m building is not the one the reader is already familiar with, then I am already concerned about imparting comprehension.
But in the near future, how closely I impart it may need to change with how quickly the reader is reading it.