Writing about Reading 5: Going Down Slow
Let’s talk about slow reading.
Maybe it’s the Native Northern Californian in me, but when I hear about the various “slow” initiatives—slow food primarily, but also “slow cities” (or Cittaslow), “slow art,” “slow travel” and “slow parenting,” all sometimes gathered up into a slow-moving Slow Movement—I don’t so much get “slow” in any direct sense, at least not for all of them.
What I get is being there—or, rather, being here. You could call that reflection; you could call it an aspect of Zen Buddhism carried far beyond the Buddhist community; you could call it consciousness. With all due respect to the gurus of the slow movement (if there are such), I’m not sure that “slowing down life’s pace” has much to do with it, and I’m not at all convinced that “need to belong” and “togetherness” (in both cases, quoting Wikipedia’s entry on the Slow Movement) are key aspects. (I’m a bit chagrined that the so-called “World Institute of Slowness” uses quick little videos as its introductions to each aspect—that seems, frankly, oxymoronic.)
Indeed, for some varieties of “slow,” I think the desire is for multiple speeds—but as a long-time advocate of “And, Not Or,” I would think that, wouldn’t I? I don’t believe we’re well-served by advocating that everything in a given area be “slow”—but that we’re extremely well-served by being aware that different activities within a sphere deserve and benefit from different levels of attention, consciousness, awareness—if you will, speed.
Too many of today’s high profile observers seem to think speed rules out slowness. So, for example, we get the nonsensical idea that, because many of us spend a fair amount of time skimming text on the internet and jumping from one thing to another, we’re no longer capable of giving one text our full attention for an extended period. My immediate response to any such claim (frequently stated in the form of a book, usually something that requires full attention for an extended period) is to think “Speak for yourself.” That may be a correct and adequate response.
But it’s true that we can forget the desirability of slowing down, the deeper meaning and satisfaction that (sometimes) comes from being here. If I hear an intelligent person saying they think books should be broken down into 140-character messages, I sigh inside: There goes a person who has lost track of slow. They’re likely to be a person who walks down the street on a beautiful summer (or winter) day, eyes glued to a smartphone, ears occupied with random music—ignoring the sights and sounds all around. That’s sad. I don’t believe it’s universal—and I don’t believe you have to give up one to have the other.
I deliberately wrote the introduction above before going to John Miedema’s work (which I’d last reviewed two years ago)—but in the belief that Miedema would largely agree with me, or I with him.
So it is. Quoting from “Slow Reading” on Miedema’s website (johnmiedema.ca/portfolio/slow-reading/):
Slow reading is about reading at a reflective pace.
There are many different kinds of reading, both fast and slow. Fast reading is greatly facilitated by digital technology. For a time, we thought that digital technology would replace books altogether. We were wrong about that. Print and books are more prevalent than ever. We are in the middle of a cultural shift that is still learning the proper place of digital technology. Fast information is terrific when we need a quick, rough answer, but like fast food it often leaves one hungering for something more substantial. Digital technology is terrific for finding information and reading short snippets, but print and books lend themselves to slow reading, a form of reading that is more pleasant and often is the only way to really understand a concept.
Many types of reading are improved by reading slowly: literature with rich dimensions that might be missed if read too quickly; local stories that engage our personal memories; and research materials that require sustained thought for understanding. Slow readers might only read a page or two at a time, reading and re-reading until they apprehend the experience or meaning represented in the text.
Those are the first three paragraphs of a nine-paragraph introduction to Miedema’s work in this area. Miedema does not call for an end to fast reading or skimming. He notes that slow reading is related to locality—another way of saying “being here.” He says slow readers support local libraries and that slow reading is “a form of resistance, challenging a hectic culture that requires speed reading of volumes of information fragments.” He calls slow reading therapeutic and believes it’s good for “our minds, our emotional health, our communities and planet.” I’m inclined to agree for the most part—and that’s with the note that I probably do ten times as much fast reading as I do slow reading.
I’ve been slow in getting to this discussion. It required slowing down a bit, reflecting on the theme, thinking about meaning. In the literature review Miedema did for his MLIS degree, he uses “Voluntary Slow Reading,” and that may be a useful distinction—since some people read slowly involuntarily, because of dyslexia or other issues. Involuntary slow reading could be frustrating; voluntary slow reading should be rewarding. (If it isn’t, read something else. You may not get Ulysses not because you’re not reading it slowly enough but because it’s just not your cup of Joyce.)
The first item on the small stack of lead sheets I compiled for this discussion, beginning November 5, 2007, is a dead end. It’s from slowreading.net—and that site no longer exists (it was a wordpress.com blog). Neither does the specific post, as far as I can tell: phrase searches on Bing and Google consistently yield zero results. Was Miedema the proprietor at slowreading.net? Possibly—and Miedema is clear about deleting blog posts, which he does often and without apology. (There’s a post about that—“I Delete Blog Posts: The Web is Not Print,” dated November 29, 2008—but I hesitate to provide the URL because, well, John Miedema deletes posts. I understand and appreciate his reasoning for deleting posts—and urging others to do likewise—but have tended to view my own posts, and more specifically C&I, as being more directly akin to publishing. Different people, different conclusions. Notably, Miedema will send copies of deleted posts to people who request them.)
For a while, Miedema’s blog—then and now at johnmiedema.ca—carried Slow Reading as a title. Now, you can find posts on that topic (including ones since the name changed) under the Slow Reading category (johnmiedema.ca/category/slowreading/). They date back to “The persistence of the book” on February 24, 2007 and, as of this writing, forward to an October 22, 2009 post noting Miedema’s speech at the Library of Congress about his book—which, oddly enough, is entitled Slow Reading (Litwin Books; ISBN 978-0-9802004-4-7; $12, 78 pages).
It’s tempting to go through the five pages of archival posts, quoting and commenting; I read most of the posts as they emerged and flagged several for later use (before I began “Writing About Reading”). But if I do that, I’ll wind up with a section likely to be nearly as long as Miedema’s book—and I suspect you’re a lot better off reading the book. To a very great extent, I suspect, the posts—some of which are fairly long, carefully-written essays—served as thoughts toward and drafts of portions of the book. They’re valuable in that regard, and likely to reward a combination of fast and slower reading.
I will not choose the cite, comment and synthesize approach I tend to favor. But I can’t resist quoting a few full and partial paragraphs here and there, each one with the date on which it was posted—recognizing that paragraphs appear without context.
There is no doubt in my mind that our relationship with books will change. Not e-Books. The mistake all along was that digital technology would replace books... There is no separate digital domain that is taking over; there is instead a continuum of information modes, both digital and traditional, meeting different needs. Witness how Web 2.0 technologies are evolving to enhance the constant of the book. Library 2.0 and sites like LibraryThing make it easier for me to find the books I want. On-line, I can evaluate portions of books. If it is a good one, I go to my library’s website and place a hold. It’s all good. Then, I take the book home and read it old style. The change we are witnessing is books fitting into a much larger spectrum of information resources. Books used to be the only source, now they are just the final and best source. I for one am quite happy with this new arrangement. [February 24, 2007]
Slow reading is not just about fiction; it’s about reading deeply and reflectively to understand an issue thoroughly. Few people can do that effectively on-line; the end of books is the end of deep thought. Fast information is great when I need a quick, rough answer, but like fast food it often leaves me hungering for something more substantial. [April 30, 2007]
To support slow reading, libraries do not need to stop growing, but they need to keep their mission rooted in the essentials—books (including the fiction shelves), local libraries, and people living in communities. The library can subordinate technology toward the creation of a culture of reading and writing. One exciting way that libraries could do this is through the development of a micropublishing program. [Same post, April 30, 2007.]
While speed-readers attempt to read as fast as possible, slow readers exercise the freedom to vary the rate of their reading, and do not necessarily always read as slow as possible. A slow reader may skim over less interesting passages, and then slow down due to read the important parts. The freedom to vary the rate of reading is closely tied to the voluntary aspect of slow reading. [January 21, 2008, from a series “Voluntary Slow Reading: A Facet Analysis.”]
Reports from avid readers also shed light on VSR. Ross, McKechnie & Rothbauer (2006) observed that “the most common image of the reader is the solitary person—intent scholar or entranced novel reader—who is ‘lost in a book.’” Without subscribing to a stereotype, there is something in this image that captures the state of slow reader captivated by a text. VSR is often characterized as a consuming activity… Reports from avid readers give the same impression, with readers stating that the experience gives them “a much greater internal world” (166). Citing Holland, “a reader responds to a literary work by assimilating it into his own psychological processes” (166). [April 10, 2008, from a series “Voluntary Slow Reading: The Research.”]
Reading on-line is different from reading print, and in general print seems better suited to slow reading. It is the very nature of hypertext to point the reader away from the page currently being read, distracting the reader from an in-depth reading that is associated with VSR. Carusi (2006) compared the reading of hypertext to linear literary text. The “binding” of hypertext is the link by which “the reader creates his or her own path through the text and, in so doing, co-creates the text” (167). A traditional book assumes a whole, which will be reconstructed through reading. This second kind of reading assumes a linear recreation of the author’s thought, allowing the reading to discover unexpected ideas rather than just reinforcing the ones they brought to the reading. [April 10, 2008, from a series “Voluntary Slow Reading: The Research.”]
There’s much more to chew on in the series of posts—and, I suspect, in the book. If Miedema was calling for slow reading as a universal desideratum, I’d argue—just as I argue with those who seem to think hyperlinks are the future of text and reading. But Miedema does no such thing. He looks at a continuum of media and purposes, and sees the virtues of slow reading within that continuum.
I can’t recommend a book I haven’t (yet) read. But since the book is an update and expansion of the themes expressed in Miedema’s posts on this topic, it’s fair to assume that it’s likely to be quite good. Portions of Leigh Anne Vraibel’s April 14, 2009 review of the book at Library Alchemy:
Face it: if you had a dollar for every time you heard one of the technorati say that “print is dead”, you’d be able to thumb your nose at your 403(b) and set sail for the sun-drenched island of your choice. Alas, until now, the response to such a deeply ignorant statement has been the sputtering incoherence of thousands of library workers who know better, but can’t cogently explain why because we’re too busy picking our jaws up off the floor or scraping our exploded brains off the ceiling.
Thanks to John Miedema, those of us who recognize and advocate the value of books and paper now have a catchphrase of our own, a scholarly framework within which to compose our arguments, and a physical object to wave in the faces of those who would march us off to twopointopia willy-nilly. “Slow reading,” a term grounded in the same ideology that informed the Slow Movement, is defined and contextualized by a body of scholarship from library science as well as literary criticism, and exemplifies a middle way that acknowledges various ways of reading and meaning-making in a calm, reasonable fashion…
One of my frustrations with our profession is that those people with opposing viewpoints or alternative solutions express themselves either so stridently that their opponents cannot find an entry point, or so quietly that their voices go entirely undetected. Slow Reading strikes the perfect balance between these two extremes with credible scholarship and a concerned, yet measured, tone that allows the reader to accept Miedema’s arguments and weigh them against his/her own personal and professional experience….
Miedema’s up to it again, with a vengeance. His new project is “I, Reader”—and he renamed his blog for a period. It’s another book project and appears to be considerably more extensive. So extensive, in fact, that I’m not even willing to offer an overview.
The series of posts comes to 45 in all. From any post in the series you can link to all the others. Once again, he’s explicitly using his blog as part of the writing process. The new project is “an exploration of the connections between deep reading and web participation” (the title is a nod to Isaac Asimov’s classic collection of stories, I, Robot).
It looks to be an interesting project. Beyond that, I’ll refer you back to Miedema’s site.
These posts touch on “deep reading” and other relatives of slow reading.
Technically, this is a followup—T. Scott Plutchak’s commentary based on Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—which I discussed in December 2008, in the very first Writing about Reading. I’ll point you back to December 2008 (starting at page 10) if you want to review the discussion. I love T. Scott’s reason for not posting a commentary right off the bat:
…I've been thinking about posting something myself, but my penchant for deep reading of long texts has been interfering with my ability to skim superficially in search of a couple of little factoids that I can quickly respond to. Despite the amount of time that I spend online, my brain seems to be stubbornly resisting getting rewired.
After that genial razzberry in Carr’s general direction, T. Scott has what I increasingly regard as an appropriate reaction to Clay Shirky’s commentary, which includes this text: "no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting." Namely, after you read a generalization that “eminently silly,” why bother to seek out the worthwhile things that might be in the commentary?
I find myself stopping at that point to think, Does he [Shirky] really believe that no one reads War and Peace? Or does he really mean "No one except dweebs who don't realize that it's too long and boring?" Just exactly what point is he actually trying to make here? By then I'm bored with him and rather than trying to puzzle it out, I go back to reading Europe: A History (I'm on page 329—only 800 left to go. Yummy.)
T. Scott makes a point that’s easy to miss when discussing reading depth and reading medium:
As with most discussions about the impact of the digital world, the print vs. online dichotomy is a false one. It assumes that the gulf between any reading online and any reading in print is fundamentally deeper and wider than the gulf between reading one of [James] Liddy's enigmatic, allusive poems and, say, Tom Friedman's The World Is Flat. This is nonsense, but how would one know unless one reads widely? (I read a blog post recently by a young librarian who is reading a nonfiction book for the first time—she's always only read novels. Ask her how different those reading experiences are.)
There’s more to the post. The main points, I believe, are that depth of reading isn’t inherently linked to reading medium—and that there’s much of value to be found in books and online.
One comment, from “datamuse,” includes an interesting thought—one I find has resonance:
I'm starting to think that the problem has less to do with format, and more to do with environment. On the Web, it's so easy to be distracted by something else, especially if you're the kind of person (and I am) who multitasks compulsively. Conversely, when I'm reading a book, I'm usually in a chair away from my computer; if, for some reason, I'm reading a book at my computer, I find it much harder to concentrate on the text.
Slow reading and deep reading—whether they’re the same thing or two different things—both require focus.
In this post (by Will Richardson on September 28, 2008 at weblogg-ed), there’s a clear distinction that is format-based. He’s discussing another article but also his own reading habits.
Probably 75% of what I read I read online. The other 25% is almost all books. I read all of my news from papers, magazines, etc. online, all of my correspondence, all of the blogs that I follow. And, as I’ve written before, my reading habits have changed a great deal. It has become an effort for me to work with longer texts, to do sustained reading and thinking, to stick with complex narratives.
For Richardson, there’s a contradiction between online reading and slow or deep reading (“sustained reading and thinking”). Instead of, say, four possibilities (online:fast, online:slow, print:fast, print:slow), Richardson may be suggesting that “online:slow” is difficult if not impossible. (Or I may be reading into what he says.)
Richardson doesn’t see that we necessarily lose the ability for slow reading:
I’ve made myself take time over the last few months to read longer texts, and after plowing through three really, really engaging and challenging novels in the past month or so, I’m feeling like my brain is back in gear somehow. It’s getting closer to balance.
I suspect T. Scott would tell Richardson he needs to look into a big, fat, dense, nonfiction book.
This October 3, 2008 post by Steve Lawson at See Also… is only tangentially about slow reading or deep reading. It’s another commentary on the article Richardson was commenting on. I’m noting it because Lawson raises an excellent point that can get smudged in the effort to encourage the kind of deep reading that may be best done offline.
Namely, it’s absurd to force use of offline materials when online is better for the task at hand. In the original article is this remarkable passage:
Last year when I required students in a literature survey course to obtain obituaries of famous writers without using the Internet, they stared in confusion. Checking a reference book, asking a librarian, and finding a microfiche didn’t occur to them. So many free deliveries through the screen had sapped that initiative.
Lawson’s immediate reaction:
Their initiative wasn’t sapped. They just couldn’t understand why an obituary that took them half an hour to retrieve from a microfilm of the New York Times was in any way more valid than the exact same obituary retrieved from the archive of the New York Times online.
Lawson’s a librarian; he wants students to talk to librarians and use libraries—“and I even think it’s great to encourage them to use printed journals and microfilm. The fact is there’s still a lot of stuff that’s not online. But newspaper obituaries?” [Emphasis added.]
The way to get people to appreciate the virtues of printed text and the strengths of deep reading are to find areas where printed text and deep reading add value. I don’t believe obituaries fall into one of those areas. Although there are death appreciations that are written so well they reward slow reading, they’re rare.
At least at the (admittedly atypical) small, private, expensive liberal arts college where I work, the students seem to crave offline reading of important books. I’m not saying that many of them won’t cut corners when given a chance, and I’m not saying that their first thought when it’s time to do research is to check a reference book and hit the microforms.
But if we want to want to show them the richness of the complicated, multifaceted, multi-format environment that is the modern day academic library, I can’t think of a worse way to teach that than with newspaper obituaries.
That penultimate paragraph raises a point I believe needs to be raised frequently: Not only haven’t our brains been permanently rewired, but neither have those of the next generation. “The students seem to crave offline reading of important books.” Not all of them, maybe more at a private liberal arts college, but some of them, some of the time.
That positive note is as good a place to end this installment as any.
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