||Slow Reading, Please
by Royce Macgillivray
PRINT IS NOW used to manipulate us. Sheer volume of words has become a way of attracting attention, without any assumption that the words will actually be read. This is one of the standard techniques in direct-mail advertising. When we find an envelope in the mail stuffed with printed advertising material, no one expects that we will actually read it. Size is here a plea for attention, an assertion of importance, a demand that we at least glance at the contents of this advertising envelope instead of a (selfincriminatingly slimmer) rival.
For office memos, length is now just as effective as underlining in red or follow-up messages as a means of drawing attention to the importance of the contents. In the academy the length of a volume is an assertion of its significance, a declaration of the influence wielded by the scholar in being able to persuade the sceptical publishers of the world to issue such a quantity of his or her words. Indeed, for a fair number of scholarly volumes the message of length is the only message they contain.
To deal with all this printed matter, various strategies and remedies have been devised. Obviously, most of these words are only glanced at or lightly skimmed. This, however, is not necessarily an evasion on the part of the reader; in most cases the printed material was designed to be read this very way.
For more serious reading matter, which does seem to have something to say, the reader may simply, somehow, make a little more time available. Or the focus of attention may be narrowed to concentrate on a delimited
area within which serious reading is still pursued. And if all else fails, there is always the mutual,admiration-society strategy - I won`t call your bluff if you don`t call mine.
In fact, given how crowded our lives are, it is puzzling that other people find the time to read as many books as they say they do. And indeed, it is quite
likely that there is much less reading done in our society than is usually pretended. The American critic Hilton
Kramer, in a 1992 survey of the state of American culture printed in the Times Literary Supplement, suggested that the great blockbuster novels and other best sellers so vigorously publicized by New York publishing houses are actually read by few people other than the editors and reviewers who are paid to do so. Also in 1992, an article in the Observer revealed that the sale of a few hundred copies of a novel may be enough to get it on the British best-seller list; and Anthony Grafton in the New Republic described a new translation of Gracian`s Art of
Worldly Wisdom, which allegedly sold
100,000 copies in the United States, as a "non book for non readers" - a gift
book not actually destined to be read by anyone. And does it bring us impossibly far from the world of rock-hard truths to wonder how many of the memoirs and
autobiographies by Canadian politi
cians that were rolling onto the market a few years ago were really and truly read right through by anybody other than
So there is, no doubt, some pretence involved in what people claim to have read. But what is more truly appalling, and represents a more serious problem,
is the honest attempt to plough through large masses of reading matter at the sacrifice of one`s time and comfort. In the wretched stuffing-down of so much half-chewed material, readers cheat themselves. The quality of their lives is lowered. Reading is too important among life`s pleasures to be ruined in this way! What ought to be one of life`s supreme enjoyments is being turned into a joyless duty.
In this kind of hurried reading, there is no time to concentrate on good prose. And yet at a time of reckless over-supply of the printed word, how much good prose is being produced! And for most of it, there can be no adequate audience. Yet, if it is worthwhile to try to appreciate good music, why not make the same effort with good prose?
What if we made time in our lives for "slow reading"? "Slow reading" is the exact opposite of the kind of skimming of printed pages and cramming in of information I have been describing. It involves taking a few passages each day - perhaps only a few pages or a few paragraphs, conceivably only a few lines - and reading them with the most minute attention.
It is always embarrassing to take oneself as an example in any matter. Nevertheless, advice never has much reality unless it is seen in action in the context of at least one life. My attention to the possibility of slow reading as a deliberate plan, and even as a kind of hobby, dates from a summer I spent abroad a few years ago. Not having much reading material at hand, I returned to a book I had read, in part and hastily, in my graduate-school days:
The Education of Henry Adams. This time circumstances made it advisable to make the reading last as long as possible. I therefore began to read very slowly and with great care. And now I found that this was exactly the way to read Henry Adams, and indeed any other text that is richly condensed. Since then, always choosing my material for "slow reading" with great care, I have made sure that every day I do a certain amount of reading of the kind in which every word of every sentence, and every meaning of every sentence, is slowly and carefully examined.
To make time available for slow reading, it is necessary to disrupt the late 20thcentury system of deluging the reader with impossibly large quantities of printed material. As a system it deserves little respect, for it is intended to exploit and manipulate us rather than efficiently channel the large amount of information generated by the
word-producing world around us. In response, each one of us should stage a private rebellion by reserving and defending one area of our reading where we can read slowly and carefully, and with real attention to what is being said and how it is being said.
Find something in your special field of expertise that you absolutely must read; don`t read it, and estimate the amount of time saved for slow reading. Make careful note of what everyone else is reading this month; don`t read that, either, and calculate the time saved as being your own, earned time. What harm, after all, will it do you if others read these books and you don`t? In five years the difference won`t be noticed, won`t matter. If you neglected to read McLuhan all those years ago when everyone else was reading him - why the only result is that by now you are entitled to savour your good judgement and good luck, in the present deep twilight of his reputation, for having saved so much of your time! Move advertising material in unopened envelopes from your in-basket to the recycling bin every day. So far as you dare, reject unread government handouts, memos, business letters, committee reports, New Yorker articles - everything that tries to advertise its importance by its length.
Having slashed a little garden patch out of the print jungle, the reader will be ready for deeper personal involvement and far more intellectual and aesthetic stimulation and more plain enjoyment than is usually got out of reading in the late 20th century. By working slowly and carefully over a few texts, and taking them in word by word, the reader will be reading the way most people read before the 19th century. This was the way they read back in the days when books were few and expensive; the way, in fact, all the great literary classics were really meant to be read.