My phone helped me fall in love with books again

Taking a fitness app approach to reading has helped to tame my distracted mind

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 2, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)


Update: With all of us facing a whole lot more indoor time ahead, we're revisiting this 2019 conversation with Michael Schmitt, the creator of an app that might help you finally tackle that big work of classic literature you always meant to get around to. As for me, I'm still using the app, and just finished Nellie Bly's groundbreaking "Ten Days in a Mad-House."


I'm not sure exactly when I started to feel like a fake. I spent most of my adult life as a self-identified bookworm, a person with stacks of Penguin Classics with varyingly colored spines throughout her home. I used to go on kicks where I'd deep dive into Victorian sensation novels, or the Harlem Renaissance. But then one day, I looked around and realized that the precious leisure time I used to give to literature had slowly been overtaken by memes and exhaustion and Netflix. I suddenly no longer felt qualified to wear a "Reading Is Sexy" tee.

I might at this point have simply picked up a random heavy book and started trying to grow back an attention span on my own, but instead I approached the issue as I do with most of my self-improvement ventures — I found an app.

Created by Illinois developer Michael Schmitt, Serial Reader takes the principles of a Fitbit or meditation timer and applies them to reading. After choosing from a vast collection of public domain classics, readers are doled out manageable doses of their selection. (For a nominal upgrade, readers have the option of reading ahead.) This spring, I revisited "Anne of Green Gables" for the first time since I was a child, then moved on to an Elizabeth Gaskell novel I'd never gotten around to. My selection arrives each morning at a time I've set, and when I'm done I get a cute word of encouragement and spray of confetti. I can also browse around by genre, when I need a new rabbit hole to fall down. And it works. No disrespect to breezy reads and classic Vines, but I'm reading actual literature again, books that make me work a little harder and think a little more deeply. 

I decided to call Schmitt recently to ask about his inspiration for the app, and the novel that changed his own life.

Like everyone else, I feel like I could be reading great literature or I could be looking at a video of a dog going down the stairs. Or reading the most horrible updates from the news cycle today. You designed something to appeal to both people who are book lovers and people who aren't. How did Serial Reader come about — what made you want to create it?

The initial impetus behind developing it was noticing my own reading pattern and deficiencies, especially coming out of college. There were books where I clearly wasn't getting it; I wasn't absorbing the material properly. One example that stuck to my brain was Willa Cather's "My Antonia." I read that in a college course and I found the book . . . fine. But in one of the class lectures and discussions, my professor read out a quote. And in the midst of reading it, he started crying. He broke down and couldn't continue the lecture.

I did not get that kind of reaction out of this book. [I thought,] I'm missing something here. It clearly affected my professor. That stuck with me, and years later I wanted to revisit these books. But I found in my own reading I was reading way too fast, I skimmed too much and missed things. I wanted to find a way to slow down my reading and absorb things better, and force myself to sit with the book longer. Not just whip through things, but draw reading over the course of many days and slow down.

I'm kind of a nerd or a geek or whatever. So instead of just imposing some sort of self-control on myself, I thought, I can just develop something for my phone or tablet and give myself a section a little at a time and then prevent me from reading on for a whole day. I could just read a little bit, and then I had to sit and think about it for a day and then continue with the next part tomorrow. I started that and made a little prototype for myself and used "My Antonia" as a test case. I divided up my book and it gave me a little section every day and it worked like a charm. I remember getting to that part and remembering it as I read it, and it hit me the same way. It's an incredibly emotional book.

Cather might be my favorite author. I went on to read "O Pioneers!" and "A Lost Lady." It just sparked a love of this author and it started an idea. I described it to my friends and they came at it in the same way that most people do; they wanted to tackle the bigger books. "War and Peace" was one of the first ones they wanted because it's the epitome of the giant novel that no one can really get through. They used the app to just chip away a little bit at a time and they were actually making progress. It worked to help tackle the kind of issues people were having at reading. So they encouraged me to polish it up and add more books and I got a launch. 

I can't imagine amassing the kind of public domain library that you have where you are continuing to add new titles very regularly. And it ranges from short novellas to "Moby Dick," "The Iliad," your big boys.

I think it's something around around 630 at the moment. I try to range between long ones and short ones, trying to hit all the major genres and have a good representation of authors as well. Far too often the big authors you think of from the classics are usually men. I'm trying to balance that out and to discover great works by women and not just people from Great Britain and the United States. I try to have a good enough range so anybody jumping into the app can find something that they always wanted to read, or something that really grabs their interest.

It's cool how you have created all these little incentives. You get your confetti spray and you get your badges, that were not part of the app at first. How do you feel this has changed the experience for readers?

There are so many apps that try to game up on certain experiences. It can sometimes feel a little derivative or condescending. It's tough to try to find a good balance of just a little pat on the back that you need to keep you going every day without cheapening your experience. I've taken that approach to try to give an opportunity to interject some kind of personality into the app as well.

Those little updates are kind of corny or zany or kind of eye-rolling at times. That's me. I keep adding a little humor or humanity, and I hope it connects with people and makes them enjoy the experience more. It is an accomplishment to get through these big works, so just feeling like it is a big deal and you're making progress is supposed to be fun. Any sort of encouragement, that shows your progress helps the experience. 

One of those things I see positive comments about are those little funny congratulations when you finish an edition. I have some internal analytics that check on which features people enable and which people turn off. There is a setting where you can go in and turn those messages off. A very small amount of people turn those things off. I take that as an incentive that people enjoy it, and it's our job to encourage people to stick with it and continue on and finish those big books.

Were you inspired by other apps out there that do the same thing, whether it's how many steps you took today or a meditation timer or any the other bougie stuff that I have on my phone?

It's hard not to get influenced by the other things around you, but definitely the fitness trackers and things that offer those sort of badges or accomplishments or can make it very explicit. Like, here's the progress you've made, and if you stick with it a little bit longer, you're going to get a milestone or you're going to mark that book as read. It's really important to see how far you've come and how little you have to push yourself to continue on and finish it off. It's a daily encouragement, and injecting something that's fun into  something some people view as a challenge. 

It really is a challenge for 15 minutes a day to bring my head to 19th century, industrial revolution-era Northern England. You do have to work, but you feel so good when you do it. 

I'm always so thrilled when anybody is bringing humanities into day-to-day life, because we lose so much touch with it. We all need to be readers. We all need to understand other people's experiences. We need the empathy and the critical thinking that reading brings us. Fiction, poetry, nonfiction, essays. 

I think it affects our health in the same way that running track or taking part in physical fitness [does]. It becomes a part of your mental fitness and general well-being to try to expose yourself to new ideas and these great stories and this mass of great literature. It's important to have that in your life.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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