[7 October 2013]
The internet, it has long been concluded by people who like to make sweeping conclusion about things like the internet, has ruined the human brain, robbing it of its enormous capacity for sustained attention and focus, rendering it a quick-fix junkie angling for its next hit of electronic stimulation in an ever more desperate attempt to stave off the terrible anxiety of encroaching tedium. This state of affairs is particularly threatening to the kind of intellectual discipline and patience that reading literature requires.
This argument should be familiar to anyone who has read, for example, the work of Sven Birkerts, granddaddy in the clan of anti-electronic doom-criers, at least in so far as they direct their wrath at new technologies and what they are purportedly doing to the common reader.
So, when David Mikics writes in Slow Reading in a Hurried Age that, “the Internet fosters light reading: we scan and graze, searching for tidbits” he is not, by his own admission, making a new case. Rather, he’s joining a chorus of, if not alarmists, at least gravely concerned commentators on the cultural scene.
Fortunately, Mikics makes the case better, more comprehensively, and more engagingly than his fellows, not least because his tone, while serious, has a lightness of touch and range of reference that suggest he is at least bemusedly aware of the world beyond books: “One would no more want an anthology of Kanye West’s, or even Jay-Z’s, tweets than one would want a collection of last year’s newspaper headlines. Even if they were catchy at the time, they are old now.”
As that quip suggests, Mikics insists that we are not in a world of declining reading, but quite the opposite. People are inundated with words that they feel compelled to read—in email, in tweets, in posts to social networking sites, in text messages—so much so that they can barely keep up. So we read fast and carelessly and we prize brevity at the expense of substance, a habit that is making all of us increasingly unable to concentrate on what is directly in front of us, constantly distracted as we are by pop-ups, embedded links, and the whole range of digital items that make constant demands on our time and attention.
The internet and related technologies have brought great gifts, Mikics acknowledges, so we shouldn’t just crankily lament the passing of some numinous version of the “good old days”. We should note, though, that the availability of nearly limitless information enables fervid and ridiculous consumption: “Before you know it, you’ve frittered the day away on stupid kitty videos, and your eyes and soul are aching.”
Mikics writes not from a position of snobbish disdain but from familiarity, which makes his case all the stronger and spares the reader the hectoring tone that pervades similar works. In other words, after surveying the scene and carefully noting the problems it presents, Mikics chooses to invite readers into the love of literature, rather than brow-beating them into guilt or shame over their “bad” reading habits.
Still, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is essentially a conservative work, its emphasis on what needs preserving and why. The bulk of the work is five substantial chapters—titled, for example, “Reading Short Stories”—that demonstrate (note: not prescribes) how to read works in a particular genre. The choice of materials is eclectic but one of the finest achievements of the volume is how compellingly, but undogmatically, it makes the case for a literary canon, one not born of professorial or other fiat but of merit.
Some works, frankly, respond better to slow reading, and, for that matter, repeated reading. And such works come from every time and every place, though most of Mikics’ choices are familiar: Moby Dick; Emily Dickinson’s poetry; Invisible Man; A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alice Munro’s short story “Invisible Swans”, to which Mikics gives substantial consideration, is a pleasant surprise.
The historical eclecticism of the canon is important because it suggests that Mikicis is both traditional and flexible in his tastes. That being said—and although Mikics largely eschews controversy and politics—he does take a swipe at academia for what he feels is its failure to foster love of literature in students and the wider culture, preferring instead to make it the platform for ideological contest: “Instead of literature, the history of social life has become the true subject in some English departments” and “Sweeping, abstract ideas about modernity, capitalism, or evolution rarely result in useful insight about books.” That’s a broad claim, for sure, and one that will likely offend at least some professional readers, but internecine squabbling is not really Mikics business here, and he keeps the complaints to a minimum.
The greatest strength of the volume is that in modeling slow reading of exemplary works of literature, it fosters exactly the qualities that such reading requires: sustained attention, attentiveness to detail, a willingness and ability to accommodate a gradually building realization of the significance of a given work. None of Mikics’ readings is earth-shattering, but they aren’t supposed to be.
Indeed, a point that persists throughout the volume is that reading is a way, perhaps unrivaled, for the reader to acquaint or reacquaint him- or herself with an ancient and uniquely human depth of feeling and sentiment. Mikics makes the point finely and, for the most part, avoids the ponderous bloviation of other advocates for the value of literature (Harold Bloom comes to mind), though a bit of high-flown and unnecessary rhetoric creeps in here and there.
That’s a small quarrel, though, in the context of real appreciation for the wisdom of the work. Slow Reading in a Hurried Age may not traverse new territory, but it takes the reader through an old country that has, through neglect and distraction, become unfamiliar. Mikics is as fine a guide as any to finding our way through it again.