Charles Dickens, Rooster, and Reading How You Want To

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re having a really cool moment in the book world right now. It’s a neat meshing of books and technology, like two big gears clunking together in new, cool, really satisfying ways. Just listing the new things that exist leads to a whole heap of links for you to go off and explore. There’s Oyster, a sort of “Netflix for ebooks;” there’s Versu, a fascinating interactive-story app which I lost a happy weekend playing with. There’s the Storium, still in beta, which is a fascinating multiplayer way to be characters and tell stories (somewhere between Dungeons & Dragons and a Choose Your Own Adventure book)…and there’s loads of other stuff. There’s Goodreads, which doesn’t seem all that new and incredible anymore, but in the grand scheme of things, it really is. And none of this is discussing the simple book-technology mesh that’s resulted in a world of ebooks and ereaders. It’s a fantastic era for bookish-gadgetry. It’s really damn cool.

Is this a book service? It goes AWWWK. It is a real rooster. It is NOT a book service.

Is this a book service? It goes AWWWK. It is a real rooster. It is NOT a book service.

One piece of technology which is relatively new is called Rooster, which, like Storium, is still in a closed beta mode. It’s a cool idea, though: you pay a subscription and get sent a daily chunk of a book – not too long, not too short – which results in you, if you read it, having read a couple of books a month in small bursts on your phone. “Well-read in minutes” is how they bill it, and I’d agree with that. They pick the books, pairing a contemporary book with a classical one.

Kinda cool, right? Kinda fun to play with, huh? Not so if you’re this Guardian article. No, then it’s not just something you can take or leave, it’s something that has to have Greater Meaning. No longer is it an interesting take on a book club, suddenly it has to be measured and found wanting. It has to have hands wrung over it.

Let’s meet the article’s complaints head-on, because they’re stacked up like milk bottles and here I am with all these baseballs.

First, there’s the grumbling about being forced to read installments of books every month, as if somehow the act of needing to read a bit a day in order to keep up is the single fine line that causes reading to cross from a pleasurable act which you might get something out of, to a miserable act of drudgery, another gray and gloomy part of your miserable workday, as required and unenjoyable as taking out the trash.

Because, you know reading is only valid if you come at it correctly, and deliberately planning to read a section – whether via an app like Rooster or not – is what destroys that. I find the suggestion that we must always and every time come at our reading in a spontaneous explosion of joy and passion – falling on the books like a Ray Bradbury anecdote, rife with food metaphors and exclamation marks! – to be fairly silly. Doing something deliberately doesn’t take the joy out of it. I am deliberately reading a novel right now because I have to write about it before it comes out. I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Tonight, I deliberately intend to overcome the rain and my own lazy moaning and go out for a run, by the time I get home, I’ll have enjoyed it.

Deliberation doesn’t destroy the pleasure of something. Rooster could be wonderful…particularly for busy people, or distractable people, who look at the walls and walls of books out there with irritation and a surge of guilt (like I do) because dammit, we could all live to 150 years old and read constantly and still not make a dent in all the books out there. Something like Rooster would mean you could look up and say “June was really, really busy…but I kept my head down and read my 500 words each day and hey-presto, in that frantic month, I read The Fault in Our Stars and I read A Tale of Two Cities.” Tell people that. If they know you’re busy, they’ll be impressed.

And hey, speaking of Charles Dickens, that’s the other thing which comes up in that wee article, the next set of milk bottles for me to knock over. The last paragraph in the tiny article is all about how poor a fit the fiction of Dickens would be for something like Rooster. Let’s read a quote.

Dickens is usually cited here, but his serial fiction was a product of the technology of the time. The rhythm of magazine publication shaped the stories he told – a long way from a book arbitrarily divided into timed chunks.”

The word “arbitrary” is the funny one here, because if there’s one thing Dickens was, it was arbitrary. Yes, Dickens planned his stories to some extent. If you’ve read anything about Dickens (and as I’ve established before, I’ve read a ton about Dickens), you’ll know the way he mapped out major themes and ideas on a piece of folded paper which he kept on his writing desk…but that was just large-scale planning. Installment by installment, scene by scene, Dickens could be incredibly arbitrary and random. Plot not ticking the way he wanted? You can tell because he suddenly throws in a whole bunch of new characters into the book, because he knew his strengths. Readership flagging? Watch the plot turn very abruptly in an effort to get attention. So yes Dickens was arbitrary as hell. This is what the article’s author means by “shaped the stories he told,” but in pointing out the arbitrary nature of it, what I’m pointing out is, it’s not like it only has to happen once.

So, what, Dickens can arbitrarily stretch and squash and goof with his novel once, but after that it’s set in stone? Since I sincerely doubt the people at Rooster would be splitting up Dickens scenes mid-sentence or midway through a vital scene, I suspect what you’re getting is the same starting-and-stopping reading approach that most people use when working reading into an otherwise busy day. I read a lot of books standing in the kitchen, waiting for water to come to a boil.

The idea of books and reading being distasteful unless you read in precisely the correct way is an old and odious one which I keep coming across, and frankly that’s a whole other article. Books is books. They are valid, whether you read them, listen to them, or hear them declaimed by a crazy neighbor who keep shouting them from the rooftops (look, you don’t like my free service, you can move, all right?)

It’s also a stupid idea. Anything that helps people read should be regarded as a potentially useful thing, not a problem. If you hold out that people can only read in certain prescribed ways, and those ways don’t happen to fit other people’s lives, what are they going to do? Not read, probably. Or read very little and feel guilty about it. There’s plenty of other places for the guilt business. I would rather people goof with technology and reading and have fun with it, have a sense of play, have a sense of accomplishment at having had a frantically busy summer vacation, but still come away from it having read three or four classic novels they otherwise never would have touched. (Not only because of time, but intimidation. An old classic looks much less Important and Scary when it’s fed to you a bit at a time. That’s a great way to get through old books.)

And then there’s the article’s last line, which is If you need to be reminded to read a book every day, I suggest the problems in your reading life are too great for any app to be of help to you.”  Which sounds flat-out mean, arrogant, and kind of close-minded. Don’t let people who sound like that dictate how you’re going to do things in your life. 

Look, read what you want, how you want it. Experiment with new ways of reading and if they don’t suit you, drop ’em (I’ll not be using Rooster, because it doesn’t suit how I read. So what?). Reading should be fun, and it can be fluid and it still counts. Please don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise. 

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