Slow Reading: An Antidote for Fast World?


Forgive me for the lateness of this post, but I have an excuse. Monday was the International Day of Slowness, and I’m just getting back up to speed. I’m not kidding. You can look it up. I personally find this purely serendipitous, since I discovered the IDOS while researching Slow Reading. I took it as an omen that I was onto something good. But I digress.

I’m supposed to be talking about Slow Reading. But to get there, we have to see the context. The phrase “slow reading” goes back at least as far as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1887 described himself as a “teacher of slow reading.” The way he phrased it, you know he thought he was bucking the tide. That makes sense, because the modern world, i.e., a world built upon the concept that fast is good and faster is better, was just getting up a full head of steam. In the century and a quarter since he wrote, we have seen the world fall in love with speed in all its guises, including reading—part of President John F. Kennedy’s legend was his ability to speed read through four or five newspapers every morning. And this was all long before computers became household gadgets and our BFFs.

Now and then the Nietzsches of the world have fought back. Exponents of New Criticism captured the flag in the halls of academe around the middle of the last century and made “close reading” all the rage. Then came Slow Food, then Slow Travel, then Slow Money. And now there is Slow Reading. In all these initiatives, people have fought against the velocity of modern life by doing … less and doing it slower. In that regard, the Slow Reading movement is hardly a movement at all. There’s no letterhead, no board of directors, and horrors, no central Web site—there are Web sites, several, in fact, all of them preaching, in various ways, the virtues of reading slowly. But mostly the “movement” is just a bunch of authors, schoolteachers, and college professors who think that just maybe we’re all reading too much too fast and that instead we should think more highly of those who take their time with a book or an article.

“You see schools where reading is turned into a race,” Thomas Newkirk, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, told the Associated Press last week. “You see kids on the stopwatch to see how many words they can read in a minute. That tells students a story about what reading is. It tells students to be fast is to be good.”

Instead, Newkirk says, schools should encourage old-fashioned exercises such as reading aloud and memorization. He says that when he uses these exercises in his college-level classes, his students thank him and tell him that it helps them concentrate, unlike the surfing they do online.

“One student told me even when he was reading a regular book, he’d come to a word and it would almost act like a hyperlink,” Newkirk said. “It would just send his mind off to some other thing. I think they recognize they’re missing out on something.”

This may be a movement largely without leaders or organization, but it does not lack for heroes, and wouldn’t you know, they’re all writers. In 2004, Carl Honoré published In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement Is Changing the Cult of Speed. He was inspired to write his book when he caught himself about to buy a collection of “one-minute bedtime stories” to read to his children.

John Miedema, author of Slow Reading, likens the movement to the Slow Food movement, which is as much as about taking your time as it is about consuming locally grown food. Both movements encourage increased mindfulness in the conduct of routine activity. “It’s not just about students reading as slowly as possible,” Miedema says. “Slow reading is about bringing more of the person to bear on the book.”

Miedema, a technology specialist at IBM in Ottawa, Ontario, admits that there’s no hard science behind the ideas of a Slow Reading Movement, and that research on the subject has been confined largely to cases of dyslexia. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that we are all reading too much too fast these days. Yes, we’re drowning in information, but, clearly, reading faster and faster is not the way out of the deep end.

Of course, for most of us it’s no simple matter to do otherwise. I wrote and researched this story on a computer, hopscotching from one site to the next, from story to hyperlinked story. I do this most of every day. But I also read books, and I read them slowly, or medium-slow. I’ve never been a fast reader. I’m average, if anything (OK, yes, I took an Evelyn Wood speed-reading test one time, just to see if I was fast or slow or what. I landed right in the middle of the pack, mostly because I subvocalize, the cardinal sin of speed reading [it means you read aloud in your head, which puts you one rung above those who move their lips when they read]).

Recently I saw a recommendation that we give ourselves a sabbath from the computer; that is, we turn the darn thing off one day a week. I like that idea. But computers are only part of the techno problem. We’re bedeviled by machines at every turn, and every one of them whispers, “Hurry up.”

The only way I know to fight back is by slowing down. For me that starts with reading, since that’s what I do the most every day. I’ve thought about this for some time, and the worst that can happen, as far as I can tell, is that I might rack up a few more overdue fines at the library. I think I’ll risk it.

I wish I had written this in time for the International Day of Slowness, but if you’re going to take your time, you’re going to be late a lot. Unfortunately, that’s a part of this equation that I’ve never had trouble with.

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