Thursday, 27 February 2014

Don't read this, read Shakespeare

This review of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age will be appearing on the excellent LSE Review of Books page shortly, but in case you don't read that site (and I'm shocked if that is indeed the case), here it is for your delectation with added links.

David Mikics’ Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is really two books. The first, which comprises the first three chapters (‘The Problem’, ‘The Answer’ and ‘The Rules’) is a somewhat dyspeptic and defensive polemic about the contemporary media landscape. The second book, consisting of ‘Reading…’ Short Stories, Novels, Poetry, Drama and Essays’ is equally familiar but more old-fashioned, being the latest contribution to the didactic tradition of guides to insecure, infrequent readers aiming to improve themselves. On my shelves, for example, are Guy Pocock’s 1942 Brush Up Your Reading

Ruth Padel’s recent 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and a range of other fascinating popular guides to the literary universe. The internet is also full of breezy sites such as Selfmadescholar’s Ten Ways Reading the Great Books Can Improve Your Life. More canonical authors have tackled this genre too: F Scott Fitzgerald put together a reading list for his nurse: he recommended a lot of Proust, some Arnold Bennett, Katherine Mansfield, and Tolstoy amongst others. 

Her response is not recorded.

Of Mikic’s first chapters, the only reasonable response is a sigh and a shake of the head. He is not unaware of the tradition of literary Jeremiahs, invoking the ‘barrelful of polemics’ written by academics  to ‘save reading’ while describing them as ‘tweed-jacketed scolds’ for their terror that television would render us all incapable of reading books. Into this category he consigns Mortimer Adler (author of How To Read a Book (1940)), Charles Van Doren who revised Adler’s work in the 1970s, and Neil Postman, author of the apocalyptic AmusingOurselves To Death. Here's some Postman. 

Mikics dismisses them, yet eats his cake too: where they went wrong, he says, is that their dire predictions weren’t dire enough. They failed to envision ‘the ever-present environment of words that envelops us like the air we breathe…everyone reads constantly, and badly…’:

The internet has put everything in a new light: lightning quick, yet blurry. The casual, makeshift sentence is now prized as more vital than the adept, finished one. Eloquence and careful elaboration seem mere time-wasters belonging to an older, less wired generation. Could Proust, who cherished the rewards and punishments that time affords the soul, have borne the Era of the Tweet?

Perhaps Proust might not be on Twitter, but I suspect Basho would be right at home.

How Mikics differs here from the purveyors of moral panics is hard to discern, despite his scorn for previous generations. His concern is that quality is replaced by speed: ‘engulfed by a never-ending flood of text, we barely have time to stop and reflect’ and he has important news of the ways in which our brains have been rewired: ‘Children and teens have become addicted to the continuous activity of clicking, the herky-jerky rhythm that rules their young lives’, and he reports the views of an ultra-Orthodoz Jewish rally against the internet, ‘growing perceptions’ and a survey as though they are valid research. For a man concerned with the patient examination of words, he is far too eager to appropriate scientific terminology without any justification or self-consciousness, which makes me dubious when it comes to relying on any of his other sweeping statements. Whenever Mikics opens a clause with ‘we’, I found myself writing ‘you’ in the margins. His concentration is shot. He can’t read a chapter without checking Twitter, Facebook and e-mail. He is paralysed by choice and tempted by the quick fulfilment of a websearch but (perhaps encouraged by his publisher because I’d hate to think these are the unmediated thoughts of a Harvard professor), he has to assert the universality of what he reckons. So infected is he, that even in the middle of an interesting discussion of Robert Frost’s ‘Design’, he recommends ‘quick Googling’ to establish the ‘horrible aspect’ the spider in question really has: surely a vote of no confidence in the poet while subverting his own insistence on switching off such distractions.

So the first few chapters of Slow Reading are boiler-plate moaning by a man out of sync with his times. Perhaps the targets are new but the sentiment is little different from those expressed by Ecclesiastes, Socrates, Erasmus and Seneca (‘the abundance of books is a distraction’), or Kevin Barry, who described the difficulty of sitting down to write a novel: ‘already I am in that impatient, flitty, online mode: I bound about like one of those neurotic petrol-sniffer hares you'll see at the Dublin airport car park’. It’s despairing, deeply-felt and yet entirely impressionistic and unconvincing. Most frustratingly, Mikics has no sense of structural context. We read badly, he says, because computers interrupt us all the time. Not because we work longer hours for less pay; nor because schooling has become a matter of satisfying the requirements of badly-designed exams and leaping up the league tables. Instead, it’s because our moral fibre has been weakened by instant gratification.

The rest of the work consists of a slightly highbrow version of Pocock et al. Despite declining the label of ‘self-help’, Mikics’ book is exactly that.
‘I can’t promise you that slow reading will help you become a better person, to make more money, or to find true love. But in a subtle way, you will be transformed, and your life will become more interesting as a result… slow reading changes your mind the way exercise changes your body:  a whole new world will open; you will feel and act differently’.

Mikics’ solution is delightfully old-fashioned. Having run a Great Books programme, he calls for a return to close reading of largely canonical texts, though with an American bias for an imagined readership of motivated, nervous, hurried American readers keen to experience the ‘sophisticated pleasure’ of reading famous works. Mikics is profoundly dissatisfied by higher education’s approach to literature: ‘English departments eagerly submit to current trends…the desire to read books subtly and with love, to get lost in the world an author has created, has increasingly given way to commentary on social fashions and media images…the history of social life has become the true subject in some English departments’. Sadly – and in line with the rest of the book – he fails to name these departments. Instead, he calls for a return to a simpler, hierarchical relationship between an author and the reader achieved by sticking to a number of Rules. These range from switching off electronic devices, reading patiently, thinking of oneself ‘as a detective looking for clues’, comparing beginnings and endings,, looking for Signposts to Using a Dictionary. Authors are unproblematic in his structure: they have a Basic Thought, a dominant Voice amongst the text’s panoply, they have Key Words and a Style. The reader’s job is to winnow the text to arrive at ‘the Nut’: the author’s nugget of wisdom. In Mikics’ literary landscape, the author is alive and kicking: the reader’s job is to recognise her or his genius (‘the more sympathetically we think about a writer’s choices, the closer we come to the writer…a reader can develop a point of view and… “be herself” the more she yields to an author’s vision. Such yielding is not surrender, rather an admiring, respectful struggle with the author’), though he generously allows us to dislike any particular text.

Mikics’ chapters on reading particular genres are helpful to a novice reader to some degree, though their advice is general, inflexible and sweeping, albeit studded with sensitive and interesting readings of specific texts. Most of them could have been written in 1950, and it’s this aspect which troubles me. The reading strategies in Slow Reading advocate reading in a vacuum: the reader’s response is deliberately limited, and there’s no interest in Barthes’s relocation of meaning or in any critical approach other than a simplified version of Leavis. Despite his denials, Mikics’ book is in fact self-help, though who exactly it will help is unclear. The imagined reader seems to be well-meaning, earnest but rather dim. The book’s assertions and purposes seem deeply conservative, as do its cultural horizons, and the opening chapters’ attacks on the contemporary media economy set up straw men to the point of embarrassment. No doubt Mikics would see this criticism as an example of the academy’s estrangement from ‘real life’, but I’m left wondering why he has so little faith in his presumed audience. More people are reading more books than ever, and they’re not all reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Why exactly Mikics thinks they need such basic instruction and rescuing from a social media morass he can’t prove exists is entirely beyond me.

This bit didn't go in my review because it's a more measured piece. But basically, I thought Slow Reading in a Hurried Age was beneath the intellectual range of someone in his position. It has so little interest in the complexities of social media, none at all in the lives of potential readers, and such a conservative understanding of literature and reading that I was simultaneously bored and embarrassed by it. The constant sweeping, unsupported assertions would have earned by students a good deal of red pen, while the 'rules' of reading are so banal as to be obvious. Little better than a Reader's Digest essay. 

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...


We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler