How To Read Beowulf In Just 600 Emails A Day

By: Eric Spitznagel

If you’re like me, you probably never actually read Great Expectations. Or Pride & Prejudice. Or The Grapes of Wrath or Ulysses or Billy Budd or, well, just about every other classic work of literature that you claimed to have read in high school. Oh sure, you always meant to pick them up eventually, but somehow you just never got around to it.

All of that may finally change thanks to DailyLit (, a new online service that’s found a clever way to get people reading again, one chapter at a time. As their website explains, “You spend hours each day reading email but don’t find the time to read books. DailyLit brings books right into your inbox in convenient small messages that take less than 5 minutes to read.”

The site recommends starting slow, with only a chapter or two per week. But in my enthusiasm, I couldn’t settle for such an unambitious reading schedule. At that rate, it’d take years to get through everything on my to-read list. Instead, I decided to find out just how many books I could cram into a 7-day period.


I start with a novel that’s always intimidated me, James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Much to my surprise, it’s remarkably easy to finish the first chapter. I suspect it’s because Joyce’s funky punctuation isn’t all that different from what I usually read in an email. I immediately order the next four chapters, and because I’m feeling cocky, I also subscribe to bloated epics like Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, and Nicholas Nickleby. I manage to read almost a third of each volume before realizing that it’s 3am. So far, this thing is addictive!


There’s an undeniable thrill to signing into your email account and discovering that you have 137 unread messages. But reading four classic novels simultaneously can also be disorienting. I find myself wondering, “Wait a minute, how the hell did Sancho end up on an island again? And why can’t Seriozha talk to Anna anymore? Did I miss something?” It’s starting to annoy me that these authors can’t just get to the point already. Don’t they understand email shorthand? Would it kill them to replace a few of those rambling paragraphs with a smiley face emoticon, or pepper their sentences with an occasional “LOL”?


Upon learning that Jane Eyre has been sent to my spam folder, I’m intrigued enough to comb through every line, looking for the dirty bits. Other than a teacher who enjoys spanking orphans, I can’t find anything even remotely filthy. I begin subscribing to random books, just to find out which ones will be flagged by my spam filter. Madame Bovary passes the censor, but curiously, not Moby Dick. (Does Yahoo know something about the whale metaphor that I don’t?) And inexplicably, only chapter 183 of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables gets blocked. I can find just one line that might pass for pornographic: “He gave three francs a month to the old principal tenant to come and sweep his hole.”


I’ve learned how to check email from my cell phone, and despite the ridiculously small print and frustrating pace (I can only receive 2-3 words at a time), I enjoy the convenience of reading on the go. I manage to finish a good chunk of “A Rose for Emily” while grocery shopping, and I plow through the Snowden-confessing-to-Yossarian bit from Catch-22 during an unusually long red light. I also find it oddly satisfying to interrupt a conversation by reaching for my cellphone and telling my perplexed friend, “I just got a text from Jonathan Swift. Hold on, this’ll only take a minute.”


I think I’ve figured out the trick. You have to stick to novels that are written in the first person, so it seems more like a real conversation. The only downside, of course, is that it’s easy to forget that the author is dead, and sometimes you feel compelled to write back. I became disoriented after reading 89 emails of Leaves of Grass, and replied to Walt Whitman with a lengthy missive, reminding him that all this isolation crap can’t possibly be healthy. He wrote back with some nonsense about a spotted hawk “complaining of my gab and my loitering.” Oh Walt, you ol’ so-and-so!


I have 351 emails waiting in my inbox that I have no intention of reading. And for some reason, DailyLit has sent me duplicate copies of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which I don’t even remember requesting. Am I crazy or are they mocking me? I eventually get around to Aristotle’s Poetics, mostly because it’s the shortest book I can find (just 19 emails). Even so, I skim through the Tragedy chapters, and the Epic Verse stuff is way too dry. Whatever, I got the gist of it.


I cancel my DailyLit account. I just can’t take any more of this pressure. But I haven’t given up on literature entirely. I’ve subscribed to a “joke-of-the-day” online service, and they just emailed me a hilarious gag about a Catholic, a Baptist, and a Mormon. And it only took three seconds to read! Sure, it’s no Canterbury Tales, but I’ll get around to reading that one of these days.