Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book Review: "Slow Reading"

John Miedema's Slow Reading (Litwin Books, 2009) was written based on the author's library school research at the University of Western Ontario. It's a short (65-page) exploration of the idea that "reading slowly allows for a deeper relationship with stories and ideas" (p. 1).

Miedema offers four essays: the first, "The Personal Nature of Slow Reading," provides a short history of the concept and various metaphorical approaches to reading (particularly the idea of reading as consuming, a la Francis Bacon). He differentiates "slow reading" as a voluntary act from "close reading" as a professional practice; its voluntary nature, he suggests, is the key aspect - it's not just reading slowly, but actively engaging with the text.

In the second essay, "Slow Reading in an Information Ecology," Miedema fleshes out his major point: that print remains the "superior technology for reading anything of length, quality, or substance" (p. 20), and that there is "something enduring about print" (p. 26) that e-readers (no matter their technical capacities) can manage. "Print," he writes, "enlists the hands, signalling the brain where to read next, and how much more there is to read. Digital reading shifts all the work to the eyes" (p. 31). While this is one of the things that has kept me from reading anything long-form in e-form (I find that I like to riffle the pages as I read, and often use a finger to trace my progress down the page), I'm not sure in the long run it's going to be what "saves print." As Miedema notes, there are important uses for both print and digital form (i.e. reference is better digitally, while long-form reading is best done in print).

Perhaps more controversially, Miedema suggests that digital books have not evolved into anything other than a sort of metadata for print books (that they exist "only for evaluative purposes before the reader seeks out the physical copy") (p. 37). I think it's too early to say that this is the case; while the statistics aren't in yet, it seems likely that many adopters of reading via the Kindle or iPad may not go out and buy physical copies of all the books they purchase for those devices (on the other hand, the amount of money I've spent on print copies of Google Books titles makes Miedema's point work in my specific case).

In the third essay, "The Slow Movement and Slow Reading," Miedema connects his idea of slow reading to the more general "slow movement," (slow food, &c.). As part of this, he suggests, we might look to some of the same principles that govern those concepts, like locality (reading local authors, or books about your home region). And in "The Psychology of Slow Reading," he offers a very wide-angle overview of the neuroscience behind reading. Finally, in "The Practice of Slow Reading," Miedema suggests ways to "do" slow reading, and fully engage your faculties in reading a text. These are the fairly intuitive things that many of us do when we really want to read: pick a comfortable spot, collect your thoughts, grab a notepad, &c. One of his hints is one I've found very useful - always read like you're going to write a review.

I'm very glad to see Miedema's research in published form, although I wish that some of the academic paraphernalia and style had been edited away. The in-text citations break up the flow of the text, and the introduction of cited authors in this book is a bit stilted (they're only rarely referred to by first name, and usually just dropped into the text in the form of a surname and a publication date). There were certain areas that warranted more fleshing out, and I hope they will be in future works (by Miedema or others).

Overall, a valuable examination of the issues concerned, and a valuable reminder that you'll get more out of a book (no matter its form) if you engage with it fully and carefully.