Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

Edifying is not a word people use much these days. To be edified is to receive a combination of instruction and uplift, a dose of moral fortification; to be edifying, one must possess moral authority, the right to claim direction over the listener’s conscience. Both halves of this equation are deeply unfashionable today. In a skeptical, democratic culture, we are loath to grant anyone the right to edify us, or admit that we might stand in need of edification. In Victorian England, literary sages like Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Ruskin attracted large audiences who trusted them to dispense needed words of wisdom. Who dares to write like that now?

One answer, it turns out, is David Mikics, whose new book, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, is beautifully and unabashedly edifying. Mikics, a professor of English at the University of Houston, has designed his book as an introductory course for beginning readers. It offers rules — fourteen of them — for reading well, as well as many examples of how to approach classic novels, poems, and short stories. But throughout the book, Mikics is up to something more than just technical instruction. What separates Slow Reading in a Hurried Age from other popular or academic how-to guides is Mikics’s urgent reverence for literature, which he wants to impress upon the reader. To read well, he clearly believes, is not just to master a skill; it is to become a certain kind of person.

Back in the 1960s, McLuhanites predicted that television would make us a post-literate society, able to think only in images. The rise of the Internet, however, has turned that expectation on its head. While we are certainly saturated in images, we are possibly even more saturated in text. No newsstand or library could hope to deliver the kind of access to writing that the Internet makes possible at the click of a button. Websites like this one have multiplied the venues for serious discourse about books. And the Internet has made us all writers, as well — of e-mails and texts and Facebook status updates and Tweets.

To express skepticism about this bounty — to suggest that the Internet takes away as much as it gives — is to invite charges of elitism or Luddism. (Just look at the way Jonathan Franzen, by condemning Twitter, has become a villain all over Twitter.) But Mikics, in calm, authoritative prose, lays out the case that the way we read now is in many cases the enemy of reading as it is supposed to be. “The Internet presents a seeming infinite volume of choices. But when we plunge into this electronic ocean of possibilities, we often feel that choice has been taken away from us…. The Net rules us by demanding that we choose as much as we can, as frequently as we can, so that we don’t miss out on anything…. We have too many choices of things to read — or glance at.”  

The antidote to this franticness, Mikics argues, is “slow reading.” The slow-food movement arose in reaction to fast food, demanding mindfulness and high quality instead of cheap convenience; so, too, slow reading is a protest against the ill effects of hurried text consumption. “Slow reading is part of the new idea of slowness, the answer to the frazzled nerves and sometimes witless frenzy of the linked-up world we live in,” Mikics writes.

Yet the “new idea of slowness” is really a very old idea. It is the humanistic belief that a good book can teach us, improve us, even edify us, if we submit to its just demands on our attention. Fast reading is goal-oriented; slow reading is an end in itself, the way art is supposed to be. Indeed, there is an art of reading, which Mikics insists will reward those who take the time to learn it: “Literature repays our attention because it is finely worked, because we can take it inside ourselves, sustain ourselves on the aptness and strength of its words.” It is possible to be a great reader, just as it is to be a great writer, and the latter couldn’t exist without the former.

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is a guide to becoming a great reader. This is a very hard thing to teach: so much of what happens when we read is internal and instinctive, and it is hard to transform reactions into rules. But Mikics manages to do exactly that, in part by not being afraid to state things that will strike an experienced reader as obvious. Mikics’s “Rule Five: Notice Beginnings and Endings,” is illustrating by a discussion of Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Independence,” showing how a work’s opening can serve as a kind of map of its whole trajectory. In “Rule Nine: Find the Author’s Basic Thought,” Mikics explains how the answer to the question “What is this work about?” does not necessarily involve its plot or setting but larger questions of theme and authorial intent. Thus, “The Canterbury Tales is not, except in the most trivial sense, about a collection of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket. Instead, it’s about how a sympathetic appreciation of personalities can coexist with a satirical consciousness of their all-too-human faults, so that sympathy and satire comment on each other.”

What Mikics is really doing, it becomes clear, is teaching readers to think like writers. This means seeing a literary work not as a predestined whole but as a series of choices — or, better, a series of responses to questions. Why does the author use this word or kill off that character? Why does she write a novel rather than a short story or a play? What problem does the work try to solve? This way of reading allows the reader to enter into partnership with the author, which is how literature becomes genuine communication. “With time, you will come closer and closer to a sense of the living core of an author’s project, the basic thought behind it,” Mikics promises.

There is always a certain problem of audience with books like Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. People who are already committed to a life of reading will not need it, and people who are indifferent to literature will not want it. Its ideal reader is someone at the beginning of his or her reading life — a high school or college student interested in serious reading but not yet certain of how it’s done. For those readers, in particular, the gift of Mikics’s book at the right moment could lead to a lifetime of good, slow reading.