Monday, January 10, 2011

Slow Reading Review

Slow Reading by John Miedema

Slow Reading examines the research in voluntary slow reading, from the earliest references in religion and philosophy, to the practice of close reading in the humanities, and the recent swell of interest associated with the Slow Movement. It looks at the diverse angles from which slow reading has been approached in education, library sciences and media studies. Research in psychology and neurophysiology provides a tentative explanation for the ongoing role of slow reading. The theme of locality in the Slow Movement provides insight into the importance of physical location in our relationship with information. Most of all, Slow Reading represents a rediscovery of the pleasure of reading for its own sake.

Miedema's tiny volume is meant to be a scholarly argument for reading: reading for pleasure, reading for comprehension, reading as escape. In five essays, he picks apart different aspects of speed reading and its associated trends, and argues that slow reading is as valid in modern times as speed and efficiency.

It's clear from the outset that this book was meant to be academic, and while it is clear and readable, it often requires concentration from its readers (which, I suppose, was intentional). So, readers should be aware that this is what they're getting into with this book.

This isn't to say that Miedema's work is without emotion or art. He often speaks of the inherent sacredness of reading, its therapeutic powers, and its timelessness as both deliverer of information, and pleasant hobby. He also makes resounding and compelling arguments for libraries and their use in modern times. His proposed make-believe book, A Librarian's Guide to Getting Lost would be an excellent next project for him. I would love to read it.

However, there are times when Miedema shows his prejudices on this topic. This book was written just before the current boom in eReaders, and so he doesn't understand them as well as he would now. However, he argues that they could never replace books because they have too many "bells and whistles" and that they, like hypertext online, are too distracting to allow true concentration. To me, this seems to be a bit of projection. I'm pretty old school about reading: I really don't like reading lengthy texts online either. However, I adore my eReader because it feels like reading a book, and it allows me to carry two hundred books in my purse. It would be interesting to see what Miedema would write a year after receiving a current-generation eReader as a gift.

The real shame is that this book was written as an argument at all. When Miedema speaks about slow reading, books, and reading and writing in general, he becomes almost rhapsodic. That is the book I wanted to read: a gift from one bibliophile to another. But then, that's my prejudice. Miedema writes one hell of an essay, and makes some excellent points all through the book. It's a quick read (har har) but a deep one, and any problems with it do not outweigh the importance of what Miedema's saying here. If you're feeling rushed, and want motivation and justification to take a breath and enjoy your life for once, Slow Reading will give you that and much more.

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