If you've always wanted to read War and Peace, but thought you'd need to be some sort of superhero speedreader to make it through Tolstoy's lengthy tome, then a new app might offer you a sense of hope.
After working for three years in self-described "stealth mode," U.S. technology start-up Spritz is ready to go public with its speedreading app — also named Spritz — which will be released for the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone and the Gear 2 watch.
War and Peace logs in at more than 580,000 words. At 1,000 words per minute, the upper range on Spritz, that translates into more than 9½ hours' reading time. Cut the speed to 500 words per minute, and it would take slightly more than 19 hours.
Given that an average novel clocks in at around 80,000 words, reading at a pace of 500 words per minute would allow you to finish in slightly more than 2½ hours. Up the speed to 1,000, and you'd be done in 80 minutes.
The app poses all sorts of questions: Would a reader really be able to take in all the meaning when content is flying by at up to 1,000 words per minute? Would your eyes go buggy?
The Spritz founders, however, are flush with optimism.
"We're reinventing the way people read by eliminating the obstacles associated with traditional reading on mobile devices," co-founder and company CEO Frank Waldman said in a release.
Spritz says its text streaming technology is rooted in science and "uniquely designed" for small screens, removing the "inconvenience of scrolling, swiping, squinting and pinching" to read on devices inside a special display called a "redicle." Plus, Spritz is simple to use, the company says, and can be learned in less than five minutes.
Speedreading is nothing new — Spritz itself acknowledges that, noting there are a lot of other reading techniques out there that try to increase reading speeds.
But the start-up, which has offices in Boston, Salt Lake City and Munich, Germany, puts a lot of faith in its technology, which aims through its "new method of word alignment" and small display space to cut down on the time a person's eye spends moving from word to word.
"With this approach, reading becomes more efficient because Spritzing increases the time your brain spends processing content without having to waste time" searching for the next word’s "optimal recognition point," or the point in any word that the eye seeks, Spritz says on its website.
But can you absorb it?
Still, it's easy to wonder just how well someone would absorb everything that's happening as War and Peace churns through the app or as tired students try to Spritz their way through heavy-duty reading the night before an exam.
Spritz says it takes into account that different words require different processing times, and that "contributes to superior comprehension" when using the app.
Co-founder Maik Mauer said in a release that the company's comprehension tests surprised them, and "confirmed" that Spritzing increases comprehension.
Company officials were not available for interviews early this week, but others wonder just how well readers could take in and fully appreciate what they read using Spritz.
"I worry about retention when it comes to this app," says Holly Kent, community manager of the National Reading Campaign, a not-for-profit organization based in Toronto.
Research has shown that there is less retention from reading on screens compared with reading on paper, Kent says, pointing to a 2013 report in Scientific American that noted that a number of studies "suggest that by limiting the way people navigate texts, screens impair comprehension."
The report cited Norwegian research that found students who read texts on computers performed "a little worse" than students who read the texts on paper.
"Because of their easy navigability, paper books and documents may be better suited to absorption in a text," the report noted.
Lots of skepticism
Vedran Dronjic, a lecturer and cognitive scientist who studies language processing at the University of Toronto, was "immediately skeptical" and had a lot of questions about Spritz.
"I'm not saying, 'Oh, this is not going to work' categorically, but what I am saying is I don't believe them right now. I'd want evidence."
In reading and comprehension studies, he says, the faster a person reads, "the more likely they are to be doing it sloppily."
"It's a common sense thing."
Eyetracking studies suggest a normal pace of reading for a moderately difficult text is in the range of 250 to 300 words, Dronjic says, noting that Spritz is generally suggesting people start at 250 and go up from there, possibly getting up to 1,000.
But Dronjic doubts that upper speed is realistic.
"One thousand is not going to happen for anybody. I really don't believe that."
'Very shallow way'
He suggests that even at 400 words per minute, your brain is "going to process things in a very shallow way."
Are Canadians reading more books?
A 2012 study for Heritage Canada found that 22 per cent of Canadians said they were reading more books than the previous year. Twelve per cent said they thought their book reading had decreased.
A lot of factors influence how a person reads, everything from the frequency of a particular word in a particular text to how many similar words are in its vicinity.
Readers slow down for some words and skip others: Dronjic says we routinely miss about 50 per cent of small words such as "the" and 20 per cent of bigger words.
"Your brain just fills in the blanks."
Sometimes the brain goes back while reading to improve comprehension.
"With this type of app," Dronjic says, "you can't backtrack, and that's automatically going to influence comprehension, I would predict."
Reading is good for you
And then there's the whole reading experience, something that is changing as more and more people shift to e-reading, but something that also maintains its fans even as mobile devices become more and more ubiquitous.
Kent is willing to give the new app a try, but questions how it could boost the reading experience overall.
Reading for pleasure
A 2013 survey for the National Reading Campaign found that 62 per cent of Canadians said they were reading for pleasure about the same amount as the previous year. Twenty per cent said they were reading more.
That same study found about 45 per cent said their reading of electronic publications had increased.
"We’re also a pleasure-reading advocate, and so we're not really behind anything that views reading as something that needs to get done," she says.
"In fact, all of the research that proves reading is very good for you, that it results in lower rates of depression, just a better overall life, has to do with people reading voraciously and reading for pleasure."
As a result, she doesn't think shortening the span of time spent reading, as the app promises to do, "could have any positive effect."
Dronjic sees one argument for the app: efficiency, and how it might appeal to a high school or post-secondary student up against a tight deadline for reading a novel.
Beyond that, he's not convinced.
"Do we really have a problem? Is there an issue here that needs to be fixed? I'm not really sure."