After enduring almost two weeks of "live updates" on the progress of Queen Elizabeth's corpse, we're now being subjected to the Paper of Record's gimmick of affixing time limits to most of its online articles. Before you click on a story, you're advised how many minutes it should take you to read it.
Taking Friday's digital homepage as an example, don't even bother clicking on a piece about Russian war crimes unless you have three minutes to spare out of your busy day. For those of you wanton enough to have an additional five minutes of time, you are then invited to take a gander at "the markets" having an anxiety attack about the return of trickle-down economics to the U.K.
But Donald Trump's legal woes? They are so rampant and the walls are closing in so fast, that you are allotted seven minutes, which is one whole minute more than the reading time that the Times devoted to the sudden death of celebrated writer Hilary Mantel. The trials and tribulations of actress Constance Wu, however, have been deemed deserving of more than double the time, at 15 minutes. Constance Wu times out at Number One on the Times time-sweepstakes homepage today.
Of course, the Gray Lady is only playing catch-up with myriad other click-bait sites that are starved both for eyeballs and for the lowering attention spans of reading-exhausted consumers of online content, piquantly known as "doom-scrollers" by the Times and other purveyors of doom and fear on the Internet.
Who gets to decide how much time it takes to read an article, anyway? I am forming a picture in my head of 10 or 12 Times employees assigned to the Daily Reading Test Desk. After everybody reports his or her time spent reading a piece, the results are then collated and averaged out and affixed right below the article, in lieu of a byline.
For a country sinking lower and lower in all kinds of metrics, ranging from democracy to human rights to education to health to life expectancy and beyond, a country where the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has just recommended anxiety screenings for all adults under age 65, the imposition of a reading-time challenge to our doom-scrolling habit seems a bit cruel, not to mention anxiety-inducing.
Then again, this is a country whose president just gratuitously announced the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, when at least 400 Americans are still dying from it every single day, and countless thousands or even millions more, world-wide, are suffering from long COVID. They love to count minutes. But mortality and morbidity? Who has the time for it?
Thus, in the grand scheme of things, my pet peeve with the timed-reading craze might seem silly. But it's all of a piece with the relentless rule of neoliberal capitalism. It's sending the subliminal message that you have only so much time to absorb news and information. You might be on an unpaid work break, and have to quickly decide which story you have time to read. Or you may be a deliberative reader who likes to savor and ponder and take your time over what you read, and who feels offended and judged. You may find the suggested reading times on articles to be an unnecessary distraction, or even a bad recurring dream of those timed school exams that you forgot to study for.
You may be so anxious trying to read the timed Times stories that you keep checking the clock after every paragraph, and then you waste more time when you can't find your place and you have to start all over again, checking and re-checking the clock and discovering that a whole half-hour has passed and you still have literally no idea of what you just read.
You may become so obsessed with timing yourself on the Times that you are failing to read carefully and critically and forgetting to question the anonymous sourcing of the story that claims Russian soldiers are raping children as young as four years old.
That seems to be the whole point, doesn't it? Abandon critical thinking and learn to swallow propaganda without a fuss, all the while competing in a race against time and against yourself, the only goal being to cross the finish line before the buzzer. You will feel smugly well-informed at the same time that you enjoy your status as an efficient user of precious time. You will get high for whole minutes at a time on the essential oil of stultifying neoliberal capitalism.
The suggested reading times that are now affixed to Times articles as important as climate change and the pandemic, and as inconsequential as the new cast of Saturday Night Live, seem to be all of a piece with the "surface reading" craze so trenchantly criticized by Robert T. Tally in his new pro-critique book, "For a Ruthless Campaign Against All That Exists."
His criticism is mostly leveled against academics who are choosing to ditch critical theory in college literature studies, in favor of faster, shallower reading of texts - that is, without delving too deeply and without questioning too much, and without running the risk of using one's own imagination to draw conclusions and form new interpretations Tally writes:
"The critic's enemy is thus any who would attempt to limit that imagination, and in particular, who would undermine literature's capacity for or effectiveness in empowering the imagination. Critique therefore has a fundamentally political vocation: it is called to challenge the forces of the status quo, to oppose the tyranny of 'what is' and to seek out potential alternatives."
It goes for books and it should go for news outlets as well. The practice of the New York Times suddenly appending time limits to articles is a bit on the tyrannical side, wouldn't you say? Not only is the "Paper of Record" relentlessly broadcasting the ruling class's propaganda, it finds it necessary to wield an annoying supplementary cudgel to control and enforce our very ability to read, to know, and to think.
I don't care what they proclaim. There is just no way to fully comprehend a David Brooks or a Tom Friedman or a Paul Krugman column in just the four minutes allotted. For one thing, you'd never have time to click on all the embedded links to their sources to find out just which oligarchic think tank is paying that particular source. The rise in bile lasts at least four minutes before you're not even halfway through the essay.
Your manufactured ignorance as an anxious, hurry-up consumer of the digital word is their bliss. So resist! Take all the perusal time you need. Be self-indulgent, and reread whole paragraphs at your leisure, and at their peril. If needed, take a mental antacid break to ease any symptoms of neoliberal reflux disease, and then re-consume with abandon.
The only clock you'll ever need when reading the New York Times is the alarm kind in your brain that goes off only when you read slowly and carefully enough to sniff out the Gray Lady bullshit, whether it be of the fast-flowing or the constipated variety.