Slow Reading Movement

Bookninja points to this article in the Guardian, which questions our abilities to read properly in the digital age:

Has endlessly skimming short texts on the internet made us stupider? An increasing number of experts think so – and say it’s time to slow down . . . According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other. And so, as Carr writes, “we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion”.

As a writer, I find this interesting. Are readers of the future going to be looking for page-turners, then, rather than more dense literature? Does it mean that more popular writers will be those who use fast, clear sentences or shorter paragraphs? Food for thought.

The article goes on to suggest:

Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.

“If you want the deep experience of a book, if you want to internalise it, to mix an author’s ideas with your own and make it a more personal experience, you have to read it slowly,” says Ottowa-based John Miedema, author of Slow Reading (2009).

Sign me up.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

5 replies on “Slow Reading Movement”

One of the things that worried me the most in this article was the idea of shortening student reading lists at university level. Crazy.

And this, I think, has trickled down into secondary level education. I saw one A Level reading list a year or so ago which, although it had some excellent books on the list, also had a distinct lack of larger texts. Snappier, easy-read books are deemed by some educators to now be the only way of getting kids interested in reading. It’s a double-edged sword though. They’re reading, great. That’s all for the good but does what they are reading have any real depth?

I think, Mark, that you’re right in saying Meyer and Brown are ‘up there’ as much by marketing as anything else. We’re in trouble as ‘consumers’ if almost all the large-scale marketing remains with authors like this. If the average book reader is spoon-fed this stuff then perhaps such low-standard, throwaway books will become the norm, if they’re not already.

Consider how often a good review of a book will say something like, “Fantastic, I read this in only two sittings.” There is almost a kudos amongst some readers regarding the speed at which books can be consumed.

Obviously, a book can be ‘unputdownable’ for many reasons, not all of them stylistic. This is mostly to do with a general and continuing move towards character-based fiction, where the reader is drawn on ever faster to find out what happens next, in essence revelling at the expectation of destination rather than dawdling to enjoy the journey.

While badly written work will obviously put a roadblock in the way of this rapid consumption of the story, good craft and attention to the beauty of phrase and structure does not automatically help it along.

Quite often attention is given to the whether the story is good or not, with little mention of how well it is told. The words have become a means for transferring an idea as quickly as possible into the mind of the reader, rather than a source of enjoyment for their own sake.

I would be the last to say whether that makes such books better or worse; there is no universal measure for good or bad. I would also hesitate to put the blame at the feet of authors or readers independently. Like all markets, fiction can create trends and it must follow trends. The question is whether authors, publishers, reviewers (and one would hope teachers) can engender the love of language that we possess in the same way that we pass on the love of narrative.

This seems to me to come more out of the “I read literature, you read cheap tawdry candy and sweets that will spoil your intellectual dinner sort of drivel” old debate.

Mind, not so much because I disagree that reading and reflecting is important. But, because this is an old conflict. People want to hate on folks like Brown and Meyer, but you know at least they’ve got people reading.

And, as a genre haven’t we spent enough time defending our own literary interests from snooty prats who just wanted to run us down and our genre down?

I’m pretty sure we can discuss the importance of different reading techniques, critical reading, pleasure reading, reflective reading, any of the ways in which we can develop skills to get value out of reading.

Because, I’m pretty sure only English majors think there is any value to reading fiction. You want to learn about something, go read a scholarly work on the subject. The point is we all have our own pretensions about our choice of fiction. This is wholly separate from the importance of developing sturdy critical thinking skills.

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