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.