I was recently interviewed by The Wall Street Journal about slow reading. It has been a few years since I did one of these interviews. I wrote Slow Reading in 2008, six years ago. At the time, the Kindle had just been released and there was a surge of discussion about reading practices, to which I attribute the interest in my little book of research. The request for an interview suggests an ongoing interest in slow reading. So what do I have to say about the subject now?
I used to slow-read often. I would write books reviews, thinking myself progressive in a digital sense for blogging reviews in just four paragraphs. A shift began. My ongoing use of digital technology to read, write and think forced that shift along. I tried to write about that shift in a new online book project — I, Reader — but I failed. The shift was still in progress. I hit a wall at one point. I thought for a time I had reached the end of reading. In 2013, I stopped reading and writing. A year later I started again. I have a good perspective on the shift, but I have no immediate plans to resume writing about it.
So what did I tell the interviewer about slow reading? I confessed that I slow-read print books less often. I re-asserted that “Slow reading is a form of resistance, challenging a hectic culture that requires speed reading of volumes of information fragments.” I admitted that my resistance is waning. Digital technology has evolved to allow for reading, not just for scanning of information fragments, but also for comprehension of complex and rich material. I was surprised and pleased to discover how digital technology has re-programmed my reading and writing skills to process information more quickly and deeply. I am smarter than I used to be.
I have resumed my writing of book reviews. I restored a selection of book reviews from the past, ones relevant to my current blogging purposes. I will be writing new reviews, probably less often. I will be writing them differently. Currently I am reading Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times by Andrew Piper. I no longer take notes on paper as I read. I have been tweeting notes. I like the way it is evolving. I use a hashtag for the title and author, and sometimes a reader joins in. When I am done, I will write a very short review, two paragraphs tops, and post it here.
That’s not all I said to the interviewer. I said there has been a trade-off because of digital technology. There is always a trade-off. We just have to decide whether whether the gains are more than the losses. What have we lost? I lingered on this question because the loss is less than I anticipated. We still read. We still read rich and complex material. Students still prefer print books for serious reading but I expect they are going through the same transition as I did. What is lost, I assert, is long-form writing. Books born print can be scanned and put online, but books born digital are getting shorter all the time. It is no coincidence that my book, Slow Reading, was short. I was already a reader in transition. Digital technology prefers shortness. It is one reason that many kinds of poetry will survive and thrive on the web. Things should be short and simple as possible (but not simpler, per the quote attributed to Einstein). Long-form novels and textbooks will be lost in time. It is a loss. Is it worth it?