Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, by David Mikics

Are we losing sight of the purpose of reading? Rachel Bowlby isn’t sure she needs instruction

October 10, 2013

It is hard to know who this book is meant for. David Mikics makes an impassioned argument for the virtues of what his title proclaims, and tells his readers over and over again (“The point can’t be repeated often enough”) that “we have lost sight of the fact that reading well requires time and patience”. On the other hand, he assumes that we do not really need to be convinced. Life is hard, and reading is the best way of coping with it: “The kids are in bed at last, the argument with the boss (or husband or wife) largely forgotten. Most of us, at the end of a trying day, know just where to turn: we pick up the laptop…There’s a better alternative, as you already know: reading books.”

The book then becomes a combination, one after the other, of polemic and manual - or, as the first two chapter titles helpfully summarise, “The Problem” and “The Solution”. The Problem is that we are surrounded by techno-distractions and expectations of swift semi-reading. The Solution is not (just) switching it all off and snuggling down with a good book, it is called The Rules, and it consists of a sort of earnest courtship for the internet-fatigued: “Getting close to a book - achieving a rewarding intimacy with the author - can be learned.” Each of The Rules has its own chapter and handy slogan heading. They range from moral exhortation, “Rule One - Be Patient”; “Rule Ten - Be Suspicious”, to elementary instruction, “Rule Five - Notice Beginnings and Endings”; “Rule Seven - Use the Dictionary”. Mikics adds: “You might not want to do this more than every half hour or so, but each time you do, you will be rewarded with fascinating information that will deepen your experience of the book open before you.”

The Rules made me feel like a stroppy student encountering one of those critics who assumes that
‘we’ all think and read alike

After The Rules, Mikics provides a speedy tour, genre by genre, of some of the best-known and most-taught texts of the Western literary canon. Thoughtfully, he nudges us when one of The Rules is in operation; this is meant as a training ground for going it alone. Mikics’ reader is sometimes quite a knowledgeable character already, someone who has studied literature in the past: “Perhaps you haven’t read much since college, but you’ve been glancing yearningly toward the novels on your shelves that you remember from your favorite courses.” Poor deprived soul!

I’m afraid that The Rules had the effect of making me feel like a stroppy student encountering one of those critics who assumes that “we” all think and read alike. For instance, “we want Oedipus to blind himself, shouting to the heavens, his face streaming with gore”. Or of Henry James’ character Daisy Miller: “Is she really as naive as she seems, or could she be manipulative, sexually experienced, disappointingly worldly?” Let’s hope not!

And although “we” are encouraged to think for ourselves, there are some clear prescriptions as to where we should not be venturing. You may need to know a couple of historical facts so as to understand what a book is about, but do not go thinking that you can “reduce it to history”. Also: “Sweeping, abstract ideas about modernity, capitalism, or evolution rarely result in useful insights about books.” And remember that: “Writers of literary works rarely take up positions about the events of their time, even when they discuss these events closely.” Good to know.

Mikics takes his slow reading cue from the American “New Critics” of the mid-20th century; he wishes to return to a time not just before the internet, but also before the far-reaching reformulations of literary study since then. Ideally, we have a reader alone with a book, and literature offers security in an unsettled age. The call to retreat can sound solemnly Victorian: “Committed readers belong more deeply to the world than the champions of causes, the great conquerors and statesmen - who may look to us, with our books securely in hand, like mere troublers of humanity.”

Reading is an escape, not just from the internet with its “whirling words”, but from all the troubles of the world. “Why do we read? We want to break away from our lives.” And, adds Mikics, a “desert island is not a bad image to have in your head as you prepare to read. No earthly storms can reach you here; you are safe.”

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

By David Mikics
Harvard University Press
336pp, £20.95
ISBN 9780674724723
Published 31 October 2013

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