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Book Review: Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

By (November 23, 2013) 3 Comments

Slow Reading in a Hurried Ageslow reading in a hurried age

by David Mikics

The Belknap Press, 2013


“My intent is not to deliver a mere crotchety jeremiad, or to claim that the old days were always better,” David Mikics writes at the start of his mere crotchety jeremiad, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, right before setting about claiming that the old days were always better.

“You may be wondering why I am preaching against electronic media rather than simply praising books and reading,” he goes on:

The reason is simple. I am sounding the alarm about the hazards of the digital age because it’s important to realize what we are up against as readers. The challenge must be met openly, with full acknowledgment of how much harder it is to read well than it was just a few years ago. (It’s also true that the new technology has advanced research in the sciences and humanities and has led to scientific discoveries; but I am focusing on this technology’s impact on the life of reading, a much gloomier picture).

Jeremiads by their very natures have to get quite a bit wrong intentionally in order to lumber forward on their tracks, and Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is no exception. Even in that one brief passage, there’s virtually nothing right – especially that irritating demanded “full acknowledgment” of something intellectuals have been erroneously claiming since the days of Aristotle, that it’s harder to read well today than it was a few years ago. Mikics’ little sop about how these computer doo-hickeys sometimes help scientists with their test tubes, with its nod to C. P. Snow’s cowardly invocation of the “two cultures,” is too close to contemptible to be broad-minded, and in any case it’s not often repeated in the course of a book that’s entirely concerned with the gloomier picture.

Mikics paints a Biblical narrative. Readers are pure besieged mortals, constantly being assaulted by the eleventh plague of Egypt: the Internet, which Mikics compares to a deluge, a hailstorm, a whirlwind – everything but a pile of frogs. The middle parts of his book are pedagogical, laying out some basic rules for beginning readers – pay attention, take notes if they help you, allow the author’s craft to unfold before you, etc. – but how are such beginning readers to get past the idiotically reactionary pitchfork-waving against which those rules are balanced? What good can Mikics’ common sense reading guidelines possibly do for his readers if they must first swallow his stubbornly reactionary attitudes toward the technology that fills – and enhances – their lives? Who has any motivation to learn basic reading skills from a teacher who gets pretty much everything else so wrong?

“Engulfed by a never-ending flood of text, we barely have time to stop and reflect,” Mikics writes, “Quick and sloppy messages cascade around us constantly. This tidal wave of bad writing, much of it demanding a rapid response, gets in the way of true reading, which takes time and concentration.” And the book goes on like this ad infinitum, always conceding defeat in battles that aren’t being fought, always imagining an Internet that’s telepathic rather than electronic, invading every user’s thoughts against their will, incapable of being turned off … incapable, that is, of being intelligently used in the same way that, for example, books can be. Instead, very boringly, the Internet is here the Enemy:

Confronted with the near-infinite options that the Internet offers, you stand a slim chance of arriving at what you are looking for: words that would speak to you, renew the strength of imagination within you, or even change your life. Just as it’s hard to encounter memorable individuals during rush hour in a big city, it’s difficult to locate that one crucial book while you are being buffeted by the Internet’s wild and whirling words. Paradoxically, when there are fewer choices courting us, we are more likely to find what we need.

The flaw in the comparison is glaring, of course: it’s every bit as easy to encounter memorable individuals during rush hour in a big city as it is to locate “that one crucial book” – it’s not the encounter that rush hour prevents, it’s the exploration, and so Mikics’ alleged paradox is rendered not only ridiculous but sinister. As any child knows, it’s never better to have fewer choices – especially in reading, and the millions of book-starved readers who’ve yearned for more choices throughout human history would be utterly stumped (and maybe enraged?) by Mikics’ misty-eyed elevation of a small-town library over the stacks of a Library of Congress. The key here is whether or not you’re afraid of abundance.

According to Mikics, the Internet might be a whirlwind, a hailstorm, a maelstrom, a tidal wave, but it’s also a wasteland; nothing good or considered can take root there, and that most certainly applies to the otherwise-noble profession of book reviewing:

Readers’ comments about books on the Internet are usually more inclined to the weakly complimentary than the rabidly insulting; and the capsule comments on Amazon, accompanied by their inevitable stars, are usually more akin to blurbs than to considered responses. There is an important place for conversation about the books we read; but this conversation must be nurtured by a wish to engage responsibly with other readers, rather than scoring points with shoot-from-the-hip opinions, or simply patting the author on the back.

Such a description couldn’t apply less to the real world of Amazon book reviews (or, for that matter, to print book reviews, since the very last thing any self-respecting book critic thinks about when filing their latest masterpiece is engaging responsibly with other readers or any such nonsense), but Mikics doesn’t care: he has his theory, and he’s sticking to it. “Slowness,” he insists, “and the patience that goes with it, is the key to good reading.”

Needless to say, the precise meeting of slow reading in a hurried age – electronic books – receives no fond mention from Mikics, who finds fundamental flaws in the brave new technology:

Yet e-books have a disadvantage: they promote forward motion rather than slow, considered reading. It’s harder to flip back and forth in an e-book than it is in an old-fashioned printed volume. A print book is designed to aid slow reading, by making it easy for you to look back at what you’ve already read … The amorphous Internet prevents deep reading; books promote it. A book imposes a fixed structure on readers. It pushes back at the web cannot. A reader becomes more capable and confident only by grappling with the demanding structure of a full-length book.

Again, not true, almost none of it true. It’s very much easier to ‘flip back and forth’ in an e-book than it is in a printed volume; it’s every bit as easy to indulge in slow, considered reading of an electronic text as it is to do the same thing with a printed text; a reader becomes more capable and confident not by grappling with the demanding structure of a printed book but in spite of that demanding structure. A statement like “the amorphous Internet prevents deep reading; books promote it” is simply flatly wrong, based, again, on a false parallel: the amorphous Internet’s true equivalent is the amorphous library, and neither is even concerned with promoting deep reading. Specific books can promote deep reading, but so can specific websites like the one you’re reading now.

It’s amazing, really, that a book like Slow Reading in a Hurried Age could find a major publisher at all in 2013, much less the Belknap Press, which is part of Harvard University Press. Mikics might be amiable in the rules he lays out for students and beginning readers, but he undermines the worth of those sections by being such a Panglossian moron everywhere else in his book, championing the 4000-title collection of public library of Keokuk, Iowa over the Library of Alexandria, savoring and treasuring books instead of hungrily reading them, and spurning a new technology that puts more books in the hands of more people than any in the history of mankind.

Every age has been a hurried age, and slow reading has always been a choice. Silly books like this one – calling for the return to a golden age that never existed while at the same time condemning the golden age unfolding right under the author’s upturned nose – have never added anything useful to the real questions posed by the rise of both the Internet and electronic books. Those questions – that debate – goes on and gets more and more interesting with every passing year, but you won’t find it in Mikics’ pages. Instead, what you’ll find here is a sepia-tinted love letter to that time when we all savored and treasured every book we read, carefully and lovingly selecting each one, maybe twenty a year but certainly no more than forty. A quick search of the hated, hectic, whirlwind, hailstorm Internet tells me that I’ve been reading books a hell of a lot longer than Mikics has, and I don’t remember such a golden age. It sounds dreadful.