Friday, October 28, 2011

Slow Reading / John Miedema -- Duluth, Minn.: Litwin Books, 2009

In 1986 Carlo Petrini formed an organization in Rome called "Slow Food" in reaction to the opening of a MacDonald's restaurant. He hoped to promote the pleasures that come from the consumption of fresh, locally grown food, produced from sustainable farming practices. His organization quickly turned into a world-wide movement as there were people everywhere who were fed up with the food-like products being churned out by multinational agribusiness companies and served up as "convenience foods." These foods are lacking in both nutrition and flavor, unless, of course, you include such flavorings as sugar, salt, and oil. The toll these food-like products are taking on our health and well being is incalculable. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments of over consumption plague us as never before.

John Miedema's book Slow Reading transfers the sentiment behind the slow food movement to our reading practices. The parallels are striking. One merely needs to substitute digital technology and the computer industry for agribusiness and one can see that the rush to make money from our consumption of information is doing to our mental lives what junk food is doing to our bodies; and just as the slow food movement seeks to recover the benefits of pre-industrial food production, a potential slow reading movement might recover the benefits of our pre-internet reading habits.

Many of Miedema's observations about reading digital texts versus books are obvious and uncontroversial. Any text that cannot be displayed in a few computer screens is unlikely to be read by anyone. Reading longer texts virtually requires a print copy. Print allows for a degree of concentration and reading comprehension that is nearly unobtainable from electronic texts. This may be due in part to the fact that reading a book involves more of one's body than reading a computer screen. One's hands, arms, and posture are involved in a way that they normally are not when reading a computer screen. Looking directly into the light of a computer screen is far more tiring than reading print on a page.

Then there are the intentional efforts to distract the reader that are built into most Web pages. Advertisement tempt us to abandon our reading and hyperlinks encourage us to follow tangent upon tangent until we lose track of what we originally set out to read. Even electronic texts that take up the full computer screen without hyperlinks are normally embedded in a browser that has scroll bars, "favorites" links, tabs, a clock, date, a search box, and sundry other icons that have nothing to do with the text. All of these distractions are absent from a printed book.

On the other hand, the very disadvantages of a digital text are its advantages. Digital texts are easily searched by computer algorithms and can be connected easily to any number of related texts. They often can be quickly copied and pasted into a new document, enlarged, reduced, tagged, annotated without damage to the original text. The benefits of electronic texts go on and on. Whether the printed text or the electronic text is superior depends on one's needs and intentions, but one important fact stands out: print encourages us to read slowly and carefully, allowing us to find more meaning in the text. That is, we are able to better understand what the author intended by writing the text in the first place. This leads to an important question that Miedema raises about how meaning is related to a text. Do we find meaning or create meaning when reading a text?

Slow Reading offers only sketchy answers to this question, but it does provide an admirable starting point. Finding meaning in a text can be contrasted with creating the meaning of the text, though certainly both are involved in any act of reading. Printed books guide us through the author's train of thought in the order and pace that the author intended. Each paragraph is present in the context of the book as a whole and this context refines and helps to disambiguate the meaning of any individual paragraph. We mostly are finding the meaning in the text. In contrast, an electronic text allow us to create meaning in a way that printed texts do not. This is a function of the ambiguous character of the snippets of electronic texts often displayed without significant context. We are free to draw our own original insight from an author's words, even to reverse the author's meaning completely. We can read the texts in any number of contexts which we create by navigating away from the text to other Web sites that strike us as related to the meaning we are constructing.

These two different reading activities are paradoxically both individual and communitarian. Reading a printed text to understand the author's meaning places the reader in a relatively solitary situation. One is usually reading alone in a room and is directly connected to a single text. At the same time, the print book reader is deeply engaged with a specific contribution by an author who is normally making a contribution to a larger and longer conversation of a community of authors. This links the reader to the larger, longer conversation. Any response the reader might have will be bounded to a great extent by the logic of that conversation. The reader becomes part of the community engaged in the conversation.

In contrast, the reader of an e-text is, of course, more immediately connected to an almost unlimited community of Web authors through sophisticated search tools that browse billions of texts, but the reader of an e-text is not deeply connected to anyone in this community. Search tools encourage the reader pick and choose short passages and construct an entirely new text that is built out of often unrelated or idiosyncratically related texts. The context of what one is reading may be an amalgam of statements in numerous unrelated conversations. The reader is not engaged in discovering the meaning of ideas in a specific on-going conversation within a community. The reader is acting more like a scientific investigator, searching the natural world (or in this case the world of Web texts) for observations that will allow the creation of a novel theory of the reader's own. In an important sense, reading on the Web often involves not engaging with others in a conversation, not listening to the author's full expression of an idea, but listening for what one wants to hear and appropriating the snippet of text for one's own solitary purposes.

Miedema notes numerous advantages that come from "slow," "deep," or "close" reading, including educational and psychological benefits, but Slow Reading is most of all a paean to the pleasures of settling into a comfortable chair and losing oneself in a book. In this age of ubiquitous data smog, that's a very fine thing.


  1. Alan, I am delighted that you chose to write on this subject. I only wish we could sit down together in the same room and have a long conversation. Since that’s out of the question at present, I’ll make only a couple of observations, both fairly tangential to the “full expression” of your ideas (and those of the author whose thoughts you discuss here) but I hope more than merely my own “solitary purposes.”

    A few years go I proposed the “slow book” idea to a publisher I was working for at the time. The publisher was horrified. The slower people read books, went her reasoning, the fewer books they will read, and the fewer books we will sell! Well, I read a lot, and some books I read fairly fast, but my preferred way to read is still slowly, lingeringly, voluptuously. I especially recommend this method for the work of Van Wyck Brooks. It is very restful to slow one’s reading to the pace of his writing.

    There are so many pros and cons to address in the debate over electronic (digital) vs. traditional (printed) text, but I wonder if you have ever gotten a lead on a question I may have asked you a few years or so back. (I’ve asked a lot of people but haven’t gotten an answer yet.) A book I read in the 1990s on the topic of books and computers and reading had a great deal to say in one chapter on the different ways our brains receive information, depending on whether are eyes are focused on an object emitting light (screen) or an object reflecting light (paper). Supposedly research shows that brains receive passively what comes at them via emitted light but take an active role when dealing with reflected light. This is supposed to have profound effects not only on attention span but also on the ability to follow complex narrative or argument. What was the book I read this in, and who wrote it? That is my question.

    Of course, as a bookseller as well as a booklover I have a dog--or maybe two--in the fight and am hardly objective.

  2. Okay, obviously in paragraph three of my comment above, the word before "eyes" should have been "our," not "are."

  3. Hi, Pamela,

    Too bad you weren't working for Rory Litwin of Litwin Books when you suggested a book on Slow Reading. Rory certainly went for the idea, but then he's a bit more interested in ideas than selling books.

    You did ask me to look into the author that claimed ill effects of computer screens. Sorry that I didn't get back to you, but I did poke around to see what I could find. Unfortunately nothing turned up. Maybe a better librarian could find it.

    Computer screens are certainly inferior to print for reading for any length of time, but the new "electronic ink" is much easier on the eyes. Still, I'm pretty skeptical regarding high tech reading tools.

    I doubt they are "greener" than paper, especially library books that circulate even more than just a few times or books that get loaned to friends, sold to used bookstores, etc. When we think of the energy use of e-books, we usually think of e-readers or PCs. No one thinks about the huge amount of energy that is required to run the local hubs, regional data centers, servers, transmission lines, intermediate routers, etc., much less to create and maintain them. Of course, these are all being used for other purposes too and the publishing industry has its own energy requirements, but I'm not convinced that e-books are greener than print. Certainly all the electronic waste we are producing is more problematic than recyclable paper.

    But what most irritates me about the pervasiveness of the internet in our lives is that it appears to be turning knowledge into information, information into data, and data into bits and bytes. I worry that we are losing any chance of understanding the world in favor of having immediate access to ephemeral facts. Everyone having immediate access to Roberto Clemente's batting average, or the cast of Citizen Kane doesn't do much to for really advancing our understanding of the world or the human condition.

    Nicholas Carr wrote a famous article for The Atlantic entilted, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He really wasn't serious about the question, but I must say, I'm not sure we have fully understood the negative consequnences of the internet.

  4. Alan, I tried to leave this comment the other day, but it looks like it didn’t take, so I’m trying again.

    Last year I wrote a post on e-readers and green reading. I am not the one who will arrive at the airtight conclusions, but, like you, I am skeptical—and I didn’t even touch on many aspects that you bring in, such as servers, data centers, routers, etc.:

    You’ll also want to take a look at my most recent post. I think you’ll like it:

    But now I need to close the screen and launch myself into a day of real books. Wishing you the same and much happiness in it.