In a funny scene in the not so funny film Smart People (2008), a conceited, self-absorbed, and somewhat loathed English literature professor played by Dennis Quaid meets with the only editor at Penguin willing to publish his latest and universally rejected tome on literary theory. The book bears the titillating title You Can’t Read, and though concerned about the pompous tone of the writing, the editor is giddily excited about the publicity he knows the title will generate.
Pompousness and Hollywood comedic sarcasm aside, our fictional derisive professor might just be on to something. Maybe it is the case that you can’t read, and neither can I. We can’t read.
Or, perhaps we have lost the pleasure of reading in an intelligent, creative, and meditative way. This is the subject of a book I just finished reading (no irony intended) titled Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2013).
I have always been a slow reader. I don’t mean slow developmentally, but that I tend to linger over words, sentences, and sometimes even punctuation in a book. A few words about the word ‘linger.’ Its etymology can be traced to the Old English word lengan, meaning to “prolong, lengthen.” Its Germanic cousin is the word längen, meaning to “make longer,” which in Middle English becomes linger, to “dwell, abide.” To slowly linger over words in a book then is to dwell, or find one’s home in that book. Paradoxically then, when we find ourselves lost in a book we might be just where we belong.
In literary theory, slow reading is just another name for close reading. Or deep reading. But as Mikics points out, slow reading, deep reading, and close reading are all modern-day kissing cousins in a lineage of active, intelligent, and creative reading—and rereading—that goes back to the rabbinical Talmud scholars of ancient Israel. It is how serious readers—those who read for both pleasure and understanding—practice reading. To quote Emerson (as Mikic does): “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of what ever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.”
Mikics reminds us that slow reading takes practice, like learning a musical instrument (note the word ‘labor’ in the Emerson quote). Like any practice, there are rules. Below are 14 rules (or just guidelines) of slow reading suggested by Mikics that I am trying to practice. I leave you to take up your instrument and play:
Rule One: Be Patient
Patience means taking the time and effort to read. But it also means allowing ourselves to be perplexed by what we read and taking the time to ponder our puzzlement, whether it be over a single word or an entire chapter.
Rule Two: Ask the Right Questions
This is related to the first rule. As Mikics says, “Asking questions is how you get from perplexity to engagement.”
Rule Three: Identify the Voice
Sometimes, as in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—in which Mikics argues are two voices—this takes the effort and patience of detective work to untangle. Don’t rush to judgment.
Rule Four: Get a Sense of Style
Style, as Steven Pinker reminds us, not only helps the writer to get her message across, it adds beauty to the world. Stop often to enjoy the pleasures of a writer’s singular style.
Rule Five: Notice Beginnings and Endings
This could mean lingering on the beginning and ending of a single sentence, or even on the title as it relates to the whole work. Or, one can go back and reread the ending and beginning of a text to see again (or for the first time) how the middle fits.
Rule Six: Identify Signposts
Here is how Mikic sums up this rule: “A book’s signposts tell you what to pay attention to, where to direct yourself in your journey through its pages. Signposts can take the form of key words, key images, key sentences or passages…As you develop your skills at slow reading, you will want to stop at as many signposts as you can, to carefully absorb the details of your book.”
Rule Seven: Use the Dictionary
To illustrate this rule, Mikic quotes novelist Maxine Hong Kingston: “The dictionary is my Scheherazade. Plus it can spell Scheherazade.” Now go look up Scheherazade in a dictionary.
Rule Nine: Find the Author’s Basic Thought
Ask yourself the question, “What is this book about?” You will often find that the answer takes time to discover.
Rule Ten: Be Suspicious
There is always a subtext lurking beneath a text. Authors, characters, and speakers do not always mean what they say (or say what they mean). Sometimes meaning has to be carefully mined from words.
Rule Eleven: Find the Parts
Every text has a structure and organization. Take it apart to see how it’s built and then reconstruct it.
Rule Twelve: Write It Down
Take notes as you read. I like to write in a book’s margin. I don’t like the note taking features on E-readers (which doesn’t mean it’s not useful; I just find it cumbersome), so when I am reading on my Kindle, I keep a notebook ready to jot down thoughts or questions I have. It’s another way to keep the conversation between author and reader lively.
Rule Thirteen: Explore Different Paths
“Revision, the writer’s most basic tool,” writes Mikic, “is also important for the reader. It’s always a useful exercise to imagine how the author might have begun or ended a work differently, or changed a crucial moment in its plot.”
Rule Fourteen: Find Another Book
Books, authors, and readers are inter-textual—they are engaged in dialogue with one another, they talk back and forth in conversation. It doesn’t end when you finish reading a book—keep the conversation going.