Cozy up to slow reading this winter

Posted on November 27, 2018 at 6:00 am

By Melissa Rhoades

One specific morning in fourth grade still stands out in my memory. I arrived early to class, sat at my desk, and opened a novel I was midway through. I don’t remember now what book it was, but I do remember becoming completely engrossed, sinking into the world on the page. Which is why the next thing I noticed outside those pages was laughter—an entire roomful of it. I looked up to find everyone laughing at me. Class had already started, and the teacher had tried to get my attention, but the book’s world so captivated my mind, it took 20 laughing children to pull me away.

When was the last time any of us were that engrossed in what we were reading?

Various movements have sprung up over the last 40 years to counteract the fast pace of post-industrial life. The Slow Food movement began in Italy in the 1980s. Slow TV began as early as the 1960s but was popularized by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation in the 2000s. And from at least the 2000s, there have been calls for a Slow Reading (Deep Reading) or Slow Books movement.

But what does it mean to read deeply and slowly?

Some people hail the rise of digital technologies as the freedom to abandon linear reading altogether. Why bother slogging through entire pages, articles, chapters, or books from top to bottom and front to back, when you can keyword search, scroll, click, and skim to find what you want?

One answer is that when you only read excerpts, all you get are disjointed fragments of what an author has actually said. It’s like walking back and forth between the kitchen, bathroom, and living room, then claiming you heard an entire conversation that took place in the kitchen.

Of course, not all writing requires the same level of attention. But this realization leads to another important question: Why do we read?

In his new book The Art of Reading, philosopher Damon Young points out that reading often functions as a means to an end. Perhaps you’re fact checking or looking for evidence to strengthen an argument. Perhaps you had a hard day and simply want to escape for a while.

There’s nothing wrong with these types of reading, but it’s important to realize that reading can offer more. Reading can also be an end in itself. As Young puts it, reading offers “an opportunity for experiences” (11), and this experiential potential is at the heart of slow reading.

Slow reading is the opposite of speed reading, not just in pace (quantity) but also in the quality of thought, reflection, and inspiration that follows. It activates the same high-order cognitive skills required for scientific inquiry, and it literally broadens our perspective by forging new neural pathways in our minds.

Think of slow reading as a hike through woods to a natural hot spring for a relaxing soak. The experience provides something different than walking to the bathroom for a hurried morning shower.

If you’d like to kindle—or rekindle—a deeper, more experiential relationship with books, read on for some slow reading tips.

Tip 1: Treat your reading choices like close friends

What do you do when a loved one or best friend has something important to tell you?

Do you half-listen while multitasking? Do you half-listen, waiting for them to finish so you can interject your own next thought?

Or do you set aside time to sit down with your friend, breathe deep, and try to open up your mind to what they have to say?

Young says that when we choose the latter approach with a book, we treat that author justly, demonstrating a willingness to take them seriously.

Tip 2: Choose books that will challenge and surprise you

Thrillers, romances, and various other genres promise an escape from everyday life that doesn’t require much mental focus. Similar to Hollywood movies, they rely on clichés and stereotypes that we know so well we don’t need to pay much attention to keep abreast of the action.

Slow reading asks us to pick up something less predictable.

In The Art of Reading, Young acknowledges that it takes courage to choose books that don’t guarantee fulfillment of stereotypical plot structures, but he insists on the importance of doing so—at least some of the time.

Neurologist and dyslexia specialist Maryanne Wolf explains why this is so important in her new book Reader, Come Home. When we only pay attention to writing that offers expected vocabulary, syntax, and outcomes, we don’t develop new neural connections in our minds. This results in ruts of habitual thinking patterns. Our predictions are fulfilled, but our minds become stagnant.

This deprives us of discovery. And discovery is vital for the development and retention of critical thinking skills that are not only key to the success of individuals but also to the health of whole societies. Young goes so far as to state that our ability to resist the need for habitual wish-fulfillment is vital to society’s resistance of tyranny (70).

Tip 3: Seek books with authors and characters who are different from you

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It’s one of the emotional skills we need in order to have meaningful relationships with other people. And it’s something close reading helps us develop.

Regardless of whether we become attached to fictional characters or nonfiction authors and subjects when we read, we actively expand our reality beyond our first-hand perspectives and experiences.

The profoundness of this ability to empathize lies in the fact that it—like the ability to resist wish-fulfillment—affects not just our personal lives but the health of society as a whole. Wolf calls this consciousness-changing aspect of deep reading one of its “most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions” (42).

Tip 4: Read print

Proponents of slow reading are sometimes accused of being technophobes, but they generally embrace digital technologies. The choice to read print is not about eschewing the digital world. Rather, it’s about balancing our digital intake with other informational and experiential inputs.

Envision is an organization focused on fostering career, technology, and leadership potential in students. They list “7 Reasons to Choose Paper over Electronic Media” in their blog post “When Deep Reading Matters.”

One of the things they touch upon is the ethereal nature of text on screens, which is palpably different than the object permanence of print. In Reader, Come Home, Wolf cites neurological studies that find we don’t retain content as well when reading from a screen—even from e-readers not connected to the internet.

As for the internet, Nicolas Carr points out in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brains that “Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (115-6).

Some neurological studies have even suggested that shifting from print to screen reading negatively affects our capacity to feel empathy, absorb information, and sustain attention. As a result, Wolf concludes that we need to educate children to be “biliterate.” That is, teach them to be literate in both digital technologies and slow print reading.

Techno-junkies, you can rejoice that there are apps to play with (like Freedom) that will “block what you want, when you want,” to stay focused during designated off-screen times.

Tip 5: Slow down

Mae West once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.”

There are no two ways about it, time is required to have a deep relationship with the written word.

The good news is that this is an enjoyable sacrifice. In 1988—three years before the internet was widely available—a study on the psychology of reading for pleasure showed that people read their “most-liked” pages significantly slower than other pages in a book.

To pause, review, and ponder passages that surprise, confuse, and/or delight us can be both profound and profoundly pleasurable. Taking time to contemplate what’s on the page is what leads to those epiphanies that expand our neural networks and our understanding.

Tip 6: Be patient

Slow reading is like an exercise regimen. The benefits develop with sustained practice.

This takes some discipline, so be patient not only with the books you choose but also with yourself.

In Reader, Come Home, Wolf explores her own failure to reread Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, a favorite novel from her youth and winner of 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature. In the end, Wolf spent two weeks reading 20 minutes per day until she was able to synch with the novel’s pace and begin redeveloping the deep reading habit she had lost (101).

Kelly Mauro, in her 2012 “Slow-Books Manifesto,” recommends starting out by reading literature 30 minutes a day—“works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer.”

Young, who discusses patience as the first trait of artful readers, suggests starting with classic short stories then working up to novels. I’ll add the suggestion of reading literary poetry.

However you choose to start your deep reading practice, this is a great time of year to get started. As daylight wanes and outdoor temperatures drop, prepare a favorite steaming beverage, sequester yourself away from digital devices, cuddle into the couch with a book, and luxuriate in slowing down.

Melissa Rhoades

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