Page 2: David Mikics – Slow Reading
The answer that Mikics offers to the problem of speed is Slow Reading:
Slowness means discovery. A good book dawns on us, and within us, with gradual sweetness and strength. … [What] we get from even a single good book, slowly and carefully read, is an education. Moving at a deliberate pace, we discover what writers really think, and as a result we develop our own minds. Such education is something that the Internet can’t provide. (31-32)
He proceeds to trace the history of Slow Reading, a term whose origins he attributes to Reuben Brower of Harvard University, who taught a course of this name in the 1950s. The history of the practice, however, he traces back to Ancient Israel and the emergence of Talmud and Midrash, the rabbis’ inquisitive and conversational engagements with the biblical text. What’s striking about this historical connection is that – in a similar fashion to Gandhi’s practice of Slow Reading – it is rooted in a life and conversation of a particular community. The local and particular community is indeed a key facet of all the major Slow movements. From Slow Food and Slow Cities to Slow Money and Slow Church, the telos of moving slowly is the flourishing of community. Although Mikics offers a rich depiction of the social engagement between author and reader, and will occasionally hint at broader social interaction around texts, my one disappointment with Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is it didn’t offer a richer vision of the social dynamics that surround Slow Reading. Whether in the Hebrew communities of Ancient Israel or in Gandhi’s ashram in South Africa, or in local church communities around the globe, reading and discussing texts together will not only serve to sustain the Slow Reading practices of individuals, it will also have a transformative effect on the community.
The heart of this book is Mikics’s 14 rules that together define Slow Reading. Having already summarized these rules, I won’t rehash all of them here. Most of the rules are familiar principles for reading literature: identify the voice, style, parts of a work, etc. Slow reading at its core is about reading well, and it wouldn’t hurt most of us to be reminded of what we need to be paying attentive to in order to read well. Where Mikics’s rule turn interesting are the ones that promote deeper and more imaginative reflection on a particular book. Consider Rule #7, “Use the dictionary.” I suspect that even the most thoughtful readers do not use the dictionary, or at least do not do so in the thorough way that Mikics recommends – examining the origins, etymology and various meanings of a word, and not just words that one doesn’t know the meaning of, but any words that pique his/her interest. Rule #13, “Explore Different Paths,” has, of course, been the guiding light of fan-fiction writers everywhere, but the practice of imagining different courses that a work might take – a different narrative arc in fiction, a different rhythm in poetry or a different line of reasoning in non-fiction – nurtures a deeper understanding of both the book and its author. With either of these two rules, there is always the temptation of going overboard, of looking up every other word, so that one loses track of the larger flow of the work, or similarly of chasing an alternate version of a work for so long that the alternate eclipses the original. As tools for deep engagement with a work, however, these rules followed with reasonable moderation will certainly benefit from a deeper appreciation of that book.