Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics was like a sandwich, the kind that you want to throw out the bread and just eat the filling. The top piece of bread in this sandwich consists of two chapters; one on the horrors of the digital age and the other on the glories of slow reading and why one would want to do it.

You will already be familiar with the horrors — short attention span, blah blah blah. To Mikics’ credit though (unlike anything I have come across from Nicholas Carr) he recognizes that

Each of us has the choice to read as he or she wants to; the new technology may stand in the way, but we still have the ability to take control of our reading experience.

In the companion chapter Mikics provides us with a history of slow reading, determining that the idea has been around since at least 200 CE when rabbis and commentators argued over the Bible and its stories. Its current incarnation, however, came about sixty years ago in a Harvard class taught by Reuben Brower on close reading.

Mikics then moves to the sandwich filling. His rules that are not rules but guidelines, techniques. He says it might seem weird to think that reading well requires any kind of technique but if you want to get the most out of a book, technique is required, just like writers need technique to produce good writing. So here are Mikics’ fourteen “rules.”

  1. Be Patient. To be a good reader, one must cultivate patience. This means not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by the book’s difficulties, allowing yourself time to be confused and time to overcome that confusion. It also means patiently looking at the details of a book and rereading.
  2. Ask the Right Questions. Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues, Mikics suggests. A good detective will figure out which questions will move the investigation forward and which will go nowhere. A good question might be, how does the title comment on the work it introduces?
  3. Identify the Voice. Who is speaking and what does that voice sound like? Is it the narrator or a character or the author in disguise? There might be more than one voice in a work, figuring out who they are and how they play off each other is important.
  4. Get a Sense of Style. Style is related to voice but style is the author’s unique signature, his way of thinking and being, and where he might confess important secrets.
  5. Notice Beginnings and Endings. When looked at together one can learn much about the book and might even find the book’s whole argument there, but you won’t know it until you have read both the beginning and the ending.
  6. Identify Signposts. These are key words, images, sentences, passages. Mikics encourages us think of reading as a kind of travel and signposts help us map out the territory.
  7. Use the Dictionary. Preferably the OED or the American Heritage. Don’t use the dictionary just for words you don’t know the meaning of, use it to discover etymology and word nuances that throw new light onto what is going on in your reading.
  8. Track Key Words. Key words in addition to sometimes being signposts, will help you trace the argument of the book.
  9. Find the Author’s Basic Thought. This is the fundamental question guiding the author in the text, what the book is really “about” deep down.
  10. Be Suspicious. Be suspicious of characters in the book. Don’t jump to conclusions about who you like and who you don’t, who is good and who is bad, you could be cheating yourself out of discovering something important because you already decided Mr. Dick was a weak minded crazy man.
  11. Find the Parts. In other words, figure out the structure of what you are reading and how it works and why.
  12. Write it Down. Take notes! You can do it in the margins of the book or in a notebook. Jot down your impressions, questions, signposts, key words, etc.
  13. Explore Different Paths. Use this to consider why the author went one direction instead of another. What if the book had ended differently? What if this character and that character never met?
  14. Find Another Book. Books talk to one another and you might find that a history of Europe is answered by a Kafka novel.

There are the “rules.” Pretty good aren’t they? I should note that Mikics discusses each one in detail, their enumeration takes up the entire middle of the book. And even more helpfully he shows us how to use each rule to analyze a text. It is really well done.

Once we have eaten up the delicious sandwich filling, we are left with another sad piece of bread. This bread is meant to be sturdy and show us how to bring together all the rules in reading different genres: short stories, novels, poetry, drama, essays. The chapter on short stories is excellent. Mikics regularly points out what rules to use and why and how it all works. But then as the chapters progress he forgets himself and goes into lecture mode and manages to mention a rule and how to apply it only now and then. In the chapter on poetry he totally blows it and spends several pages talking about scansion without bothering to explain why anyone should know anything about feet and metre. Very disappointing. I got so frustrated with Mikics losing his way after that I must admit I went from slow and careful reading to skimming.

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is a good book though. I very much enjoyed it. For all of the work slow reading entails, Mikics forever insists that first and foremost reading should be fun. But he also insists that slow reading is part of what can make reading so very pleasurable.

Curiously, he addresses the book to people who don’t read much; the person who reads a book or two a year but perhaps wants to improve her reading abilities as well as read more. This is fine, but I can’t imagine someone who only reads a book a year being the one to pick up Slow Reading. The people most likely to pick up this book are already avid readers like you and me. But that’s fine because I think even avid readers enjoy being reminded about how to read well.

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