School programs and libraries often encourage reading by holding summer programs that offer rewards to top readers. For example, finish 10 books and you get to pick a toy out of a grab bag. Some may find these programs salutary attempts to get kids to unplug and discover the joys of reading, but I have always been suspicious of them. What connection is there between how many books one reads and strong reading? Or discovering pleasure in books? If I were an 8 year old, I would skim as many books as possible to get a toy, wouldn't you?
These programs call to mind Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Carr argues that we are becoming superficial thinkers, skimming knowledge rather than burrowing down deep. The web is altering our neurological processes, he explains, causing our attention to scatter: We are losing our capacity to become absorbed in intense concentration.
Oops. You better read stop reading this column and answer that text. And since that first paragraph reminded you of reading A Wrinkle In Time in 3rd grade, you should probably tweet the title and add the hashtag “booksthatchangedmyworld." Also, did you email your mom back?
The antidote to this lack of focus? Slow Reading. John Miedema’s book of this title argues that we need to recover the art of immersion in books. The movement’s title may conjur an image of sipping a long-simmered mushroom soup reading Middlemarch, but Miedema is not just countering the speed of internet reading (or fast food); he is also encouraging us to remember that reading can be a source of pleasure, not just a course requirement or a way to get a toy from a library grab bag.
I googled “Slow Reading” so I could research this column and came upon this story from the Guardian: I scrolled to the end and she has just used the same conceit to write her column. The author makes the same points I have. Do I have anything new to add to the conversation about slow reading? Are we all just cycling through the same 140 character ideas?
I have been writing "Signatures," this column, for almost two years now. Although the title is taken from printing technology, I have always championed digital technologies and gainsaid arguments like Carr’s that would have us believe reading and writing are deteriorating. But I must come clean: I am feeling increasingly worried about my reading capacity. My lifelong habit of reading a book before I fall asleep is turning into a new twitter scrolling habit. I am writing more than I ever have in my life, but I am reading less. I worry.
I still become absorbed in books (Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad is rocking my world). But my attention wanders more quickly than it used to. Email, texts and, most distressingly, this really stupid Tetris-type game I downloaded onto my iPhone beckon. I am not ready to agree with Carr, but I am ready to take one day off the internet a week. I will turn on the perfectly named Freedom software for my Mac, delete that speed-reading email and hopefully find out how to lose my self again.