A novel idea: slow reading

Greg Garrard is torn between packing his course reading lists and giving his students time to reflect and dig deep

June 17, 2010

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought ..."

Calvino's brilliant, infuriating novel starts with you starting to read it, then takes you on a wild goose chase through 10 more beginnings, each in a different literary genre. It is the ultimate coitus interruptus of narrative desire, with a global conspiracy thrown in for atmosphere. It is also, sadly, what it is like for many students reading English literature at university today: a vivid series of tantalising openings from which the satisfactions of climax and conclusion have been stripped away. As we finish off our reading lists for next year, we ought to ask: can students be expected to read up to four novels a week, and if so, why?

Packing one's reading list is understandable: we love books, we know most of our students are ill-read, we want to make up for it, and we feel the need for "coverage". I kept adding to a course on the 20th-century European novel until we were doing eight in a semester, in part because, well, how can it merit that grandiose title with only a handful of French, Italian and Czech writers on it? Having added a Swede, a Russian and a Hungarian, though, was it really much more representative of a century and a continent? On the whole, the notion of coverage is self-deception: the work of even a single author of substance embarrasses our over-stuffed list of set texts, let alone "Romanticism" or "Contemporary Literature".

Seeking to avoid the American model of course anthologies by mandating whole books, we actually concede de facto anthologisation. Ask students privately or anonymously, and they'll tell you of their shelves of disappointed books: the terrific reads with a corner turned down, 50 pages in, because the lecture was on something else, the seminar was skipped because it seemed pointless to go, and the next literary marvel arrived from Amazon demanding attention. Even the most industrious (mature) students can only speed-read to victory, skimming with a strategic eye out for handy themes and apt quotations. Our disingenuous expectations risk ruining the pleasure of reading, or else inaugurating a cycle of mutual disillusionment between lecturer and student.

What is meant as a valiant stand against the decline of reading is actually a symptom of it, and then a cause. The fear of dumbing down leads to thinning out. We conspire in an unspoken agreement that our carefully considered choices are more a measure of students' inadequacy than our hopes for them, so they increasingly stay home as the weeks, and the novels, fly by. Like a high-speed train through gorgeous countryside, a novel a week turns the lovely hinterland of literature into a meaningless blur. Slow down, and the landscape changes: tempting byways appear; curiosity is given a chance to supplant urgent strategy. Acoustic engineers like to leave "headroom" in a recording, fine wine must apparently be allowed to breathe, and great books deserve space to come into their own.

Slow reading, like slow food, is about savouring rather than gobbling. The alternative, as voluntary reading continues to decline, is the futile effort of policing: quizzes, exams and journals that, whatever their other merits, purchase reassurance about students' reading at the cost of deep engagement. So no matter what makes it into your reformed Great Tradition, show you care by cutting your canon.

The students whose passion responds to the beckoning absence you've contrived - perhaps as far as to browse the Further Reading you've suggested - will justify your sacrifice, while the ones who squander it on their Wii will save on uncompleted books at least.

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