You Don’t Have Time To Read This
Better pay someone to do it for you.
Every so often, I see a product that makes me angry. These are usually limited to: beauty products that implicitly body shame women, oversized motor vehicles, and things that generate entirely unnecessary volumes of plastic waste (K-cups, I’m looking at ya.) But when an advertising algorithm decided I might be interested in Blinkist, I got the new-ish experience of being irrationally angry at an app.
If you’re not familiar, Blinkist is an app targeting people with ‘no time to read’. For $16 a month, it offers digested wisdom from popular non-fiction books that you can read or listen to in under fifteen minutes. Their website claims this will both expand your mind with ‘big ideas’ and supercharge your career. But in the same way that processed chicken nuggets lack the flavour or nutrition of a whole roasted bird, pre-digested chunks of information are a poor substitute for actually reading books. And if you swallow too many of them, they can be seriously bad for you.
You could argue that a superficial understanding of a subject is better than none at all. But when it comes to complex ideas, a basic understanding only serves to give people confidence in what could be extremely flawed judgements. Judging by the internet chatter, many Americans are confident in their understanding of the term ‘socialism’. It’s apparently interchangeable with ‘communism’, ‘Stalinism’, ‘complete subjugation by an authoritarian state’ and ‘starving to death in a bread line’. By refusing to engage further with the many nuances of that ‘big idea’, voters routinely deny themselves the basics of a modern nation, like healthcare, parental leave and robust worker protections. And while it’s hard to know exactly what 55% of the British electorate currently understand by ‘sovereignty’ (I think it has something to do with blue passports…) the simplicity of their definition is leading them off a political cliff.
Also worrying is the focus on advancing your career by appearing knowledgeable, rather than actually possessing in-depth knowledge. We’ve all watched, frustrated, while colleagues with more confidence than competence are promoted up the ranks. But most fakers eventually get found out; queue up a Netflix doc on Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal, or the ill-fated Fyre Festival, for proof. And in between the rise and the spectacular fall, people get hurt. If we allow ourselves to promote the superficial over the authentic, then we elevate people into positions of power who actually don’t know their stuff. We end up with droves of posers, from Gwyneth Paltrow telling you what to put in your vagina to quacks ‘curing’ autism with bleach. Somewhat understandably, many people stop putting any trust in ‘experts’, and the results range from individually deadly (unvaccinated kids dying needlessly of preventable diseases) to, potentially, globally catastrophic (Trump’s fat finger hovering over the nuclear button.)
If fast-food versions of books weren’t sad enough, I recently learned of another horrifying trend known as Podfasting. Apparently, people have started listening to podcasts and other audio content at sometimes up to double the normal speed. This reportedly allows some people to ‘read’ up to 10 books a week.
I can sympathize with the instinct to digest more content in less time. I wouldn’t have survived my undergraduate degree program, featuring weekly reading lists of over 30 books, without a good amount of skimming and speed reading. But I also know that very little of the information I hurriedly crammed into my brain actually stuck. The books and ideas and arguments I remember are the ones I spent some time with, reading and re-reading, writing notes in the margins, referencing and rehashing and ingesting slowly, like a really good meal. Science seems to back me up here. Studies show that while comprehension and short term recall of audio played back at 1.5x and even 1.8x speed was comparable to listening at a regular pace, there was a significant drop in long-term memory. The human brain is capable of some amazing feats. But really learning, engaging with complex ideas, genuinely understanding; that, quite simply, takes time.
What I really object to, of course, is bigger than a new app or a fleeting trend. It’s the internalized capitalist ideas that underpin so much of modern life. That every hour of the day should be relentlessly optimized, dedicated either to work or improving ourselves so that we can work more, better, faster. That the answer to having less leisure time isn’t, say, fairer working hours, better paying jobs or more paid vacation, but cramming even more activities into your shrinking windows of personal time. That the dumbing down of an entire culture is a fair price to pay for producing more stuff.
In a world shackled to those ideas, the simple joys of being human are reduced to chores that must be executed as quickly as possible. Long walks become 15 minute HIIT workouts. Casual catch-ups with friends are replaced by emojis in WhatsApp group chats. Why wander the market and transform your finds into a beautiful, leisurely feast, when you can neck a meal replacement shake at your desk? We’ve been convinced that what we need is more speed and convenience, when actually we just need more time. Time to read and think and just…be.
My advice? Give the middle finger to 15 minute books and productivity podcasts at triple speed. Gift yourself what I was about to describe as ‘a lazy afternoon’, until I realized I’d fallen into the trap of framing any kind of leisure in negative terms. A quiet afternoon, with tea and biscuits and a good book or podcast or movie or essay that you can give the attention it deserves. A half-speed afternoon, if you like.