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Paul Horton: In Defense of Reading III -- Slow Down!

Guest post by Paul Horton.

We have all heard about the slow cooking movement. There is also a growing slow reading movement. Maybe slow reading is growing slowly because fast everything seems to be growing faster than kudzu everywhere.

David Mikics, a Professor of English at the University of Houston, has recently written a very good book on this issue, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (2013).

As reading and English teachers grapple with teaching literacy to prepare students for PARCC tests across the country, they should read this book very slowly to attempt to maintain a semblance of sanity: Slow Reading in a Hurried Age describes what you know you should be doing and want to do in your classes: reading to open minds rather than prescribed literacy drills that closes them. 

For Mikics, as for most dedicated readers and teachers, reading is under assault from a barrage of information and images that gadgets produce. We tend to scan information very quickly when we "read" on screens or phones.

He cites a Pew survey that found that 90 percent of teachers were concerned about how digital gadgets were creating "an easily distracted generation with short attention spans." (p. 10) Indeed constant Internet use retards a "young person's readiness for intense study habits that college requires." (p. 11)

Of greater concern, what psychologist Linda Stone describes as Continuous Partial Attention (CPA), or the constant taking in of more and more information, coupled with multitasking has the impact of diminishing our subjective experiences and the emotional and intuitive depth of our daily lives. It should come as no surprise that CPA presents as added stress and that many of us have become addicted to information and visual scanning.

Even worse, according to computer science whiz and polymath Jarod Lanier, we have given up our freedom to corporations that run search engines when we access information for free, but give up our freedom to these companies who use our searches to sell product. (p. 14)

One important study found that "digital natives" switch sources on screen twenty- seven times per hour. (p. 15)

According to Mikics, those who can't learn to separate themselves from digital scanning for work or play are engaging in a kind of spiritual anorexia. He offers slow reading as a tried and true antidote for those who have forgotten or have never been initiated into the mysteries of what we used to call "the Great Conversation."

Three factors that Mikics does not address may have significant impacts on the quality of reading for most students in the United States at present. According to a recent study conducted by Renaissance Learning, students read fewer books as they get older. By the time they reach high school the number of books students read decline precipitously.

The most obvious explanation is that books tend to be a lot shorter and illustrated in the early grades. But my 11th and 12th graders tell me that they do not have the time to read that they had in middle school. Their lives are planned around their more demanding courses and reading for those courses in addition to preparing for ACTs, SATs, SAT II's, and AP tests, not to mention driver's ed.

Another explanation is that kids are forced to read in more predatory ways to construct research papers, essays, and standardized tests required to demonstrate alignment of course materials to state, College Board, or Common Core Standards.

Preparing for standardized testing requires a kind of atomized learning. Assessments for these standards require learning to understand meaning from context, memorization, and formulaic writing.

A third explanation that explains the reading decline is that most kids are also busy with extra curricular activities in addition to demanding course schedules and requirements and prefer to watch YouTube videos when they get a break. For some students, of course, it might be the other way around.

For whatever reason, students are reading less and the quality of what they are reading is suffering because much of it is either rushed or digital or both.

Mikics offers many solutions that require all readers to slow down. His book is an attempt to encourage us to relearn how to slow down and read with care.

Here are a few of his more important points that he presents as "rules":

We need to learn how to be patient with a book and avoid the temptation to put it down as we would click to something else on a screen, "your patient struggle with a book should be fun, not tedious." (p. 55)

"Press yourself to discover the fundamental question that animates the author." (p. 127)

 "You should cultivate a suspicion of your judgments about the characters in the book...such easy judgments prevent you from reading sufficiently deeply." (p. 135)

"When you practice the art of slow reading, you will find it helpful to jot down your impressions in the book's margins or in a notebook...The give-and-take between author and reader takes place on a two-way street. In this imaginary but essential conversation, the reader has a responsibility to keep the author interested." (p. 156)

Mikics suggestions require us to recover subjective depth that becomes lost in what critic Nicholas Carr has called The Shallows of digital learning.

While Mikics might acknowledge that learning literacy though close reading might be important in those schools where literacy is a major issue, for most students who master literacy, the depth of a narrative conveys cultural meanings that might be connected to something like "the Great Conversation" that allows us to question and derive meaning about who we are as humans.

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is an important guide to reading that goes light years beyond the requirements of the stale corporate pathology that educrats call the Common Core Curriculum.

Reading and English teachers will delight in reading this volume very slowly as they encourage their students to read novels, short stories, essays, and poems that might not be on the Common Core Literacy reading list.

Virginia Woolf summarizes the idea behind Mikics' book very well in her essay, "How Should One Read a Book", "If you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other." 

One wonders how she would respond to the idea that one's comprehension of a passage from a great work of art could be demonstrated by a response to a multiple- choice question.

We who love reading, like Emerson, want to read "books which take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate experiences." Mikics believes in a similar vein that "when we read, we want a book to unlock us, even break us open."

"Today more than ever, we find ourselves frustrated by the promises of digital technology, as it offers ever more rapid, more ingenious, and more unsatisfying ways of keeping in touch. Instead of staying up to the minute, we should step back and think about what Woolf, like so many others, celebrates: the rewards of slow reading." (p. 317-18) 

When declaring cultural independence from continental thinking in his "American Scholar" lecture Emerson proclaimed that "there is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of the author is as broad as the world."

It is too bad that our educational leaders seem to be lost when they insist that creative reading and writing are superfluous in the spiritually anorexic digital world that they so lovingly embrace.

What do you think? Should we be thinking more about reading as a creative process?

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio's West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country's most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.  

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