William Cather homestead (Wikipedia)

How I tricked myself into reading better, building an app, and finally understanding why my professor cried

Learning to slow down through serialization

On every other day he was a wiry intimidating hardass of an English professor, unafraid of labeling undercooked undergrad ideas b.s. and once throwing a cellphone out the classroom window. But one day, while discussing Willa Cather’s My Antonia, he broke down in tears. The novel — and one line in particular — had devastated him. Just as it had (he said) every time he taught it over the past 20 years.

I didn’t get it.

Then, as now, I read like a chainsaw: too fast, getting the job done as quickly as possible without any pauses for the more finer touches. It was great for cramming in books the night before a test. It was downright abysmal for retaining information (I couldn’t remember the plot of My Antonia at all years later) and for noticing the more substantial themes.

I read like a chainsaw. I needed to be an axe.

Cover of Master Humphrey’s Clock in which Dickens published “The Old Curiosity Shop,” 1840 (Wikipedia)

It occurred to me that what I had been doing was binging, consuming 200 or 300 pages in a day or two. What I wanted was to experience reading as a serial. You know, the way books used to be delivered. The way that got Americans to swarm the docks in New York waiting for ships delivering the latest issues of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.

So, several months ago, I decided to try it. I returned to My Antonia aiming to read it for 20 minutes a day, hoping to finally “get it.”

Like a good nerd, rather than just reading 20 minutes a day from my old paperback (too easy!), I took a look at what apps and services offered serialized reading experiences.

And that was a bummer.

Certain options were paid only, didn’t have the classics, or delivered issues through email (yeah, we all want to spend even more time in our inboxes). Offerings in the App Store were collecting dust and 1-star reviews.

So with that wonderfully idiotic thought of “how hard could this be?” I set out to do it myself. I spent two weekends whipping up an iOS reader app for my iPhone, then split My Antonia into 37 “20-minutes-to-read” piece. The app would “release” 1 piece every day and no more. It would force me to slow down.

Some thirty days later, I found myself tearing up on the train to work.

“Don’t you remember me, Antonia? Have I changed so much?”

I had spent weeks with Jim and Antonia. I had watched them grow up. I had despaired as Jim left for the east coast. And then, on his return, how could Antonia not even recognize him?

A snippet of my 100% streak record in Serial Reader for ‘My Antonia’

Serializing the novel and slowing down worked. I got so much more out of reading My Antonia than speed reading it back in college and I finally understood why my professor was so devastated by it. It was such a great experience that I immediately jumped right into my next challenge: The Brothers Karamazov.

It’s a heck of a lot of fun to binge on books, TV, music, movies — but sometimes it’s much more rewarding to slow down a little.

PS — I ended up adding a hundred or so more works into the app and releasing it in the App Store. It’s called Serial Reader and is currently being featured as one of Apple’s Best New Apps. It was also covered by the Washington Post.

I hope you’ll give it a try if you too feel you could benefit from slowing down a little.

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