Slow Reading: TEDxLibrariansTO Presentation by John Miedema

Reprinted with permission from John’s blog:


Say the words, “slow reading”, and you will have a reader’s attention. In a time of information overload, we all feel pressure to read more quickly. Three years ago I performed a Google search on slow reading. I found studies on dyslexia and eye disorders, advertising for speed reading courses, and complaints about the scanning rates of I/O devices. At the time I was doing a Master of Library and Information Science, and decided to undertake a broad search for research and concepts about the benefits of slow reading. The results were published in a little book aptly called, Slow Reading. I was surprised at the level of interest. Many of us share a quiet conviction that to read slowly is preferable at times. It is a pleasure when reading for recreation, and an aid to comprehension when studying a complex text. Today I will share with you the results of my search.

The concept of slow reading can be traced back to the practice of bibliophagy or book eating in the Bible, when prophets were commanded to eat a book to gain spiritual insight. The earliest explicit reference to slow reading is in Nietzsche’s preface to Daybreak where he defines his task as a philologist to be a teacher of slow reading. Today, scholars in the field of literary criticism practice close reading, the evaluation of a work through careful analysis of its text and language. English students often learn rigorous techniques to extract a work’s layers of meaning.

While prophets might obey divine commands to consume books, and scholars might use prescribed techniques for close reading, all of this may be sufficient to ward off a reader curious about slow reading. It need not be so. One professor complains that the literati are doing what her sex education nurse did in her seventh grade – forget to tell the students that the practice is quite fun.

In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose describes how she uses close reading to help students who find reading stressful. We all begin life as close readers, she says, learning to read by listening word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase to those reading to us. Prose transforms what has become drudgery for some into “the bliss of childhood reading when time, mercifully, stands still”.

The perception that slow reading is only for advanced readers is challenged by teachers who are innovating with slow reading techniques with students of all ages. I imagine many of you have re-read a favourite book. Faust & Glenzer used re-reading in the classroom. The title of their article came from the testimony of their children: I could read those parts over and over. The students readily grasped that re-reading literature is like watching movies and listening to music more than once.

Speed-reading courses teach students to read as fast as possible, but slow reading is not about reading as slow as possible all the time. One person savours each word while another skims, slowing down only for certain passages. Slow reading may involve arguing with a text, so to speak, or seeking out additional materials to add context. Some readers prefer the classics while many advanced readers rate half their pleasure reading as trash. Variability and personal control are essential in slow reading. As Virginia Wolf said, in the final analysis, no one can give another advice on what to read or how to read it.

A second stream of thought points to slow reading as an explanation for the persistence of print, books and libraries alongside the rise of digital technology.

The notion of a “paperless office” was coined in the seventies at the Palo Alto Research Center, formerly Xerox, “the paper people”. The now familiar idea was that digital documents would replace print. It grew into a popular conception about the death of print, books and bricks-and-mortar libraries. Fredrick Lancaster rose to prominence as a librarian who promoted a vision of a paperless library. His vision was a totalizing one. He did not foresee a combination of print and digital media but rather a complete displacement of print.

Many of us bought into the vision of a paperless society, and with good cause. In the eighties, the typewriter, the indispensable tool of writers for a century was superseded by the word processor. In the nineties we witnessed the mainstream integration of the web. By 2000, Google was busy digitizing libraries. Just this year, Amazon announced that e-books outsold hardcovers and paperbacks combined.

Fourty years later, the paperless society is still just around the corner. Never mind that global production of print has tripled since the seventies. A downturn in 2008 was due to the recession not the Kindle, and figures are back up again. Amazon does not publish research, it advertises to increase sales. If you can buy ten 99 cent books for the price of one paperback then sales reflect an overall larger book pie. Two generations after the prediction of a paperless society, print, books, and libraries are thriving. How come? It is not a mystery to slow readers.

I was an early adopter of the Kindle. As Jeff Bezoes of Amazon promised, it is bookish. It has the dimensions of a paperback and is tapered to emulate the bulge of a book’s binding. It uses e-ink to simulate real print. I found the Kindle was good for the kind of reading in which I scroll form beginning to end without interruption. It was fine for my summer reads. I ran into problems using the Kindle for slow reading of longer, denser, richer material. Reflective reading requires more deft handling of pages than the Kindle’s buttons can manage. The note-taking functions were limited, preventing simple copy-paste operations from the device to my computer, no doubt due to DRM.

I am still waiting for the invention of an e-reader that surpasses the print codex for slow reading. It may not be possible. Print has one feature that undercuts digital technology: fixity. Fixity is the ability to capture an idea so that it can be read slowly and processed. No message notifications. No clicking away. An e-reader could only mimic this state by turning off all of its digital bells and whistles. For the Kindle to serve the purposes of slow reading, it must become a print book.

There is no question that digital technology is a major driver in the reinvention of libraries. But there is good evidence that it is the books that kept people coming back. The massive restructurings to offer digital services go largely unnoticed by users. This finding may dismay those with a futuristic bent, but it should send a signal to the library administrators and budget makers – avoid Lancaster’s mistake and instead plan for multiple futures of the book, both digital and print. In other words, continue planning around complex information needs, the tradition that has kept libraries thriving through the information age.

A third theme from my research on slow reading found connections with the larger Slow movement. In his book, In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré documents the rise of Slow Food, an organization that promotes eating fresh local foods produced in season by sustainable farming practices. Honoré’s interest in the Slow Movement began with slow reading. One day in an airport he spotted a newspaper article on a series of condensed fairy tales called The One-Minute Bedtime Story. At first it struck him as brilliant – the cure to his nightly tug-of-war with his son’s demands for more stories – then the absurdity of his fast lifestyle called him to his senses. These days he goes into son’s room, leaving his watch behind and his computer turned off, and slows down to his son’s pace, talking about whatever as they read a story. It has changed from a task to be hurried to a reward to be cherished.

The Slow Food organization promotes local eating, and this theme of locality also fits with slow reading. Libraries have long been considered the physical embodiment of knowledge, the home of shelves of books. Within the library, one can be sure to find every item in the collection catalogued with a specific call number. In this ordered world, information clearly has a location.

The advent of the Web has called this view under scrutiny. Cloud computing, for example, promises a complete separation of physical hardware from it users. Information seems ethereal, transcending the limits of its container or physical embodiment. People tout e-books as a greener alternative. The pitch is good marketing but it caters to a false perception. Digital products occupy physical space, consume physical resources, and fill our dumps. Each megabyte moved across the web consumes energy. The Internet is a large, hungry creature placing a heavy footprint on our planet. The Slow Movement reminds us of the physical nature of our reading.

One day, perhaps, accelerating developments in technology will lead to a merger of human intelligence and machines. Our minds will be engineered to absorb information at an incredible pace and with penetrating depth. There is reason to be doubtful. Will the information mean the same thing? Can it maintain the desirable qualities associated with slowness, such as intimacy and sociability? Reading research suggests that slowness is in fact an important factor in understanding how we read and think.

Carver’s “rauding” theory proposes that we have five “gears” of reading. Unlike the first two gears of scanning and skimming, the third gear, rauding, includes comprehension and it is what we normally think of as reading. The last two gears are learning and memorizing; they are slower and more powerful than rauding. Carver found that most people read at a constant rate, their rauding rate, and it is best for comprehension of relatively easy material. When difficult material is encountered, individuals will temporarily shift down to slower rates of reading.

Reading is work for most of us and difficult for others. Dyslexia is a common cause of involuntary slow reading. Interestingly, dyslexia has a greater than chance association with increased creativity, including geniuses like Thomas Edison and accomplished performers such as Johnny Depp. What would be lost if we could fix dyslexia with surgery or force brains to read faster using technology? Our brains have evolved to use slowness as part of our overall information processing experience. This pattern points to a more fundamental design found throughout creation, the constant oscillation of a process to its opposite, yin-yang fashion, be that neural excitation and inhibition, sowing and reaping, kingdoms rising and falling, or the universe expanding and contracting. As fast as our minds become, ultimately slowness may be required to make the most of reading.

It is often said that a person can only read about five thousand books in a lifetime. It is a small range of books given the accelerating quantity available to us. This limitation might lead some readers to rush their reading, thereby increasing the number of books. This response turns a reader into a tourist, jumping from experience to experience, noting only the highlights, being able to say he or she has done it, though not entirely sure what was done. Another response is to simply and happily acknowledge that life is indeed short, and that our smaller selection of books represents a unique expression of our character. This second choice removes the needless pressure from reading, and restores it as a great pleasure.