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Slow Reading

July 18, 2010

Thanks again to Emily for sharing another great link. In the Guardian this past Thursday, Patrick Kingsley profiles “the art of slow reading,” a movement that aims to counteract the reading habits we’ve developed in a digital age, like “slow food” counteracts the unhealthiness and malnutrition of fast food.

I’m not so sure I completely buy into this metaphor. Though Kingsley cites some empirical and anecdotal evidence to support the claim that the Internet has been detrimental to our attention spans, reading habits, and understanding of texts, I found some of the arguments by the proponents of the “slow reading” movement to be a little sensationalistic and, more importantly, theoretically off-base.

The slow reading movement itself is as fragmented as our attention spans are purported to be. Some of its proponents claim that we simply need to take time away from the Internet to focus on reading books in isolation. No disagreement here; not having my laptop for the past week has boded very well for my reading productivity, and is making me consider Internet detoxing at least once a week this fall (I know I won’t, but it’s nice to dream). But unlike this reasonable proposition, other slow reading proponents essentially make the claim that reading on the Internet is inherently of an inferior quality than reading on paper, that we can only properly engage with a text in printed form.

Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with “slow reading” as a whole, the article gave me a lot of food for thought, catalyzing something I have been thinking about for a while, especially as it relates to my readings in “book history,” an intellectual movement and mode of inquiry about as scattered as this “slow reading” movement seems to be. One of its primary foci is the transition from manuscript to print culture: how the transmission and reception of texts, in literary/political/social/economic terms, shifted as manuscript culture gave way to mass-produced print media. What book history lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in theoretical clout; I have been slowly making my way through The Book History Reader (Finklestein and McCleery, eds.) that I won at a book history-themed poster competition during my semester in Ireland, and I appreciate that, though book historians come from different disciplines, they tend to approach the study of the book with careful attention to theory and method. In particular, they approach transitions in positive terms before making normative judgments, an approach that some “slow reading” proponents could use.

After the break, I attempt to address what is cited as so uniquely detrimental about the Internet, and why I disagree with claims that it is inherently hurting us:

The Internet certainly encourages a certain reading strategy of skimming and browsing. In a media theory seminar I took at Princeton, I got the chance to listen and talk to a man who was involved in the creation of the banner ad, which was once a new technology but today is inextricable with the Internet. Interestingly enough, the speaker (I have regrettably forgotten his name, but as soon as I recover my laptop with my notes I’ll fill it in) talked about the new wave of Internet advertisements: social media advertisements, which cull information from social networking sites to encourage you to click on advertisements that feature your friends. You may have seen them on Facebook: they generally tell you that “Your Friend” likes a product, so you should too! I find them somewhat terrifying, as instead of guessing your demographic or interests based on the site you are viewing (in a nutshell, what Google advertisements do) these social media ads exploit social networking data to try to get you interested in what your friends are (at least ostensibly) interested in. As Big Brother as it feels, it is a strategy that works, as we are more likely to click on something we feel personal investment in than a random Internet ad, which we have grown desensitized to.

The banner ad and the social media ads share a common goal, to distract and entice you to click on the advertisement. But this is scarcely a phenomenon unique to the Internet. Think of any newspaper, which peppers advertisements among its columns. Even in modern cities, advertisements lurk anywhere and everywhere to usurp viewers’ attentions. Since I am working in New York City this summer, I have made my way into Times Square on several occasions, the epitome of advertising mayhem. Your eyes must constantly move to take everything in, including the massive crowds of tourists that surround you. This is no different from how you must apprehend music videos on MTV, which often have split-second takes. Sometimes I watch MTV when I’m running on the treadmill at the gym, and I almost get dizzy just trying to keep up. Perhaps these viewing experiences have decreased my attention span, or at least increased the rate at which my eyeballs move (essentially the findings of the studies cited by Kingsley in the Guardian article), but I disagree with the claim that they represent any less meaningful of a viewing experience.

One of the claims in the article, for example, strikes me as a little presumptuous:

…because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, [but] we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other.

Here we are led to believe that the nature of our reading/viewing is inextricable from the nature of our conclusions. If we only read 1/5 of each article that we come across, we only form 1/5 of a conclusion, it implicitly argues. Again, I don’t completely disagree, as I think that following out the arc of an author or critic’s argument is vitally important to being able to form an argument of your own. But the type of skimming and perusal that the Internet encourages also allows its users to come into contact with more content, contact that isn’t necessarily made illegitimate by perusing it. When I do research, sometimes I skim through 10 to 15 articles for every one that I decide to read through. I could have read through the first article that I came to, but I am using the tools available to me to make educated decisions about what to read thoroughly, making the best use of my time and trying to do the best research possible. I don’t think contemporary Internet readers are much different.

So is the “slow reading” metaphor an appropriate one for the message that the movement tries to convey? If “slow reading” means close and careful reading, then I’m all for it. But in citing “slow reading” as an antidote to Internet culture, I think the metaphor falters, attempting to brand “meaningful reading” as synonymous with “print reading.” The “slow food” movement doesn’t necessarily react against the quick preparation of fast food, but against its unhealthy ingredients and preparation. If the “slow reading” movement is to make any impact, it should not conflate a text’s medium with its meaningfulness.

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