Review: Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics

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Discussed in this review: Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics. Harvard University Press, 2013, 336 pages. Buy at Harvard UP and Amazon.

We buy ‘em fast, but then we should read ‘em slow. The first part of that statement is a reflection of living in the age of Amazon. The second part is the advice of the English professor, David Mikics. Like many professors, Mikics tells us we have a problem: we are losing the capacity to read attentively and grapple with ideas in texts. He then devises rules – 14 of them – to address the problem.

My first reaction to the rules was, “Ugh! Now I can’t even read in peace, and I have to adopt some kind of regimen?!” I also feared that book was just another entry in the tired the-Internet-is-making-us-stupid genre. But many of us really do while away hours on Twitter glancing at info chunks rather than reading, you know, books. If you care about the life of the mind and culture, you should read this book. Bear in mind, though, that the book is mostly about the reading of literary works. It does not really address news consumption.

The Mikics School of Reading

Slow Reading In A Hurried Age
Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics


Mikics starts out his book by pointing out that very few of us read books regularly. One charm of (or problem with) Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is that it is not really a scholarly study. There was no footnote, for example, giving us facts and figures on how few of us read books regularly. Mikics just contends that that is so and launches into his argument that we are bombarded with information, much of it useless, and that we need to recapture the ability to read, digest what we read, and develop our minds.

There is a lot of preaching to the choir in Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. Nevertheless, Mikics does prod us to think about the place of reading in our lives. I have only recently started reviewing books, for example, because I had to force myself into a routine that required me to read books. Otherwise, I might ignore books entirely in favor of happily spending hours on Twitter and only secondarily reading the few print periodicals I still subscribe to. Books had become things that adorn my shelves and seem to cry out, “Are you going to read me, or what?”

Mikics can be annoying. He disdains many of the joys of the electronic age. I learn a lot from scanning Twitter, and e-mail enables me to maintain friendships and establish new ones. But he says of surfing the Internet, skimming headlines, and checking email, “None of this is reading in the sense I mean…Reading is a craft, a practice. My aim is to provide you with the tools you need to become a better reader. Reading better means reading more slowly.”

Does it, now? Actually, I wish I could read a hell of a lot more quickly than I can do at the moment.

Let’s take this statement as an example of what bothered me most about the condescending, unscientific tone of the book: “Too frequently, and especially at the end of a busy day, reading becomes flipping the pages of the New Yorker without finishing any of its articles…” I subscribe to that magazine and I don’t really feel any great sense of loss if I don’t finish any of the articles. If none of them has held my attention, that is not necessarily an indication that I have lost the ability to concentrate. Rather, it means that much of the material is dull and that I would be better off spending more time on other activities.

"Reading alone" (Photo credit: Ed Yourdon, flickr)
“Reading alone” (Photo credit: Ed Yourdon, flickr)

Mikics is exceedingly pro-book – that is pro “good” book. He writes, “Newspaper articles, tweets, and blogs won’t show you what reading is all about. Only a book can do that.” That is really quite an astonishing statement. So much for powerful writing no matter where we encounter it.

Are there really people who believe that reading must remain book-centered? What a strange attitude for someone in a position to influence the next generation of readers to take. And by “book,” Mikics seems to mean, for the most part, a printed book and not an e-book. He also seems to regard audio books as not really books at all.

But that is the value of Mikics’ book – he believes passionately in the value of the book as object in the act of reading. There is a place for such arguments. I find them unrealistic. But they do need to be made, if only to be dismissed wittily or rebutted angrily. This is the kind of book that engenders discussion, and kudos to Mikics for generating such.

Mikics describes his book thusly, “This book is a how-to-guide for the overburdened, hurried person who encounters “texts” all the time – e-mails, tweets, short online news pieces – but who wants something more rewarding, something that only slow reading can achieve.”

Re-readability

Mikics says several times in his book that one of the key measures of the value of the book is whether you are tempted to go back and read the book again. That struck me as a rather odd measure of a book. Surely the yardstick for measuring the greatness of a book is that you don’t need to read it more than once. A great book is one that is so memorable a re-reading is not necessary. I read Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy decades ago and recall much of it vividly. I don’t need to spend another several weeks to re-experience the embarrassment Clyde feels on the street corner with his oddball missionary family, or his hopes of making something of himself via his position as a hotel bellhop. Isn’t it better to go on to other books (or a moving blog post or online news story) than to re-read the same books? Mikics must have far more time than most people and less of a need to keep up with the news of the day – which is, after all, one of the ways we can be good citizens of the world and not self-indulgent slow readers.

But here again, in his rather irritating, pontificating fashion, Mikics does make us think about what reading is for and ways to think about not only reading but also re-reading.

What Mikics Doesn’t Get About Twitter

One major flaw in Mikics’ book is that he doesn’t really seem to grasp some of the basics about Twitter. He seems to think that most people use it simply to read only tweets and to tweet. But many of us use Twitter in order to click on the links to the very sort of long-form writing that Mikics champions – although even that would probably not satisfy him because nothing that is not a printed book or magazine probably would. Twitter enables us to learn about reviews of, well, books. It isn’t all bulletins about being at Starbucks.

The Good Old Days Aspects of Mikics’ Arguments

One does get the impression from Mikics’ book that he would probably have been happiest in an English department consisting of Lionel Trilling, John Crowe Ransom, Mark Van Doren, and basically most white male critics – before things like diversity and women in the academia and the Internet came along. He pooh-poohs the good that a wider view of literature, influenced by cultural studies and the social sciences, has had on literary studies, writing, “Instead of literature, the history of social life has become the true subject in some English departments.” (And many aren’t even called English departments anymore.)

He also does not seem to like theorists, saying, “Sweeping, abstract ideas about modernity, capitalism, or evolution rarely result in useful insights about books…”  Although he tries mightily to avoid sounding like a fuddy-duddy, that is very much the tone of much of his book. We are told for pages that good books have to be read in solitude. Mikics suggests we are attention-span-deficient nincompoops if we find ideas that we come across via social media venues worth taking seriously and worth discussing in the comment sections of blogs rather than in more genteel forums (a seminar, perhaps, at a university).

Mikics does not seem all that keen on dealing with issues of the here and now (where such uncomfortable subjects like race, gender, class, social justice, and so on tend to occur). He says, “I admit that I prefer the older authors, because they are more distant and therefore have more to tell me.” The canon he draws upon in Slow Reading in a Hurried Age tends not to include females, non-whites, etc.

Mikics’ Festishization of the Book

Even those who love books may find themselves taking issue with Mikics’ over-the-top arguments for the book as the fount of all knowledge. He tells us, “A reader becomes more capable and confident only by grabbling with the demanding structure of a full-length book.” So much for the US Constitution or other non-book-length texts.

The Rules

Mikics provides 14 rules that he argues will endow those that adhere to them with the capacity to become attentive readers (and again, he equates books with reading). I won’t list the rules here – that would not be cricket. They are one of the main selling points of the book, after all. You want the rules – buy the book.

Those who teach English classes such as introduction to literature courses will find this chapter the most valuable in the book. They could use the rules both as guides in their teaching and as material for class discussion.

The chapter will also interest those who like to talk to one another about reading habits – where they read, whether they write in the books they read, and what they do after they have finished a book. This chapter is the how-to that Mikics promises, and it should be required reading for book clubs throughout the land. It provides practical suggestions with well-chosen examples from classics (don’t look for much post-1940) of the Western canon as to how to approach literature in a way that will lead to personal enrichment and cultivation. The tone, which you will not be surprised to hear given Mikics background in academia, is a bit on the pedantic and professorial side. But he does want everyone to learn how to read intelligently and to lead richer intellectual lives, and you can’t fault him for that.

Mr. Mikics on How to Read Short Stories Novels, Poetry, Drama and Essays

The second half of the book consists of chapters on how to read staples of Western literature: the short story, the novel, etc. Mikics is incredibly well read, and much of this material is heartfelt, though a tad on the pedestrian side. These chapters, like the one on his rules, would be useful to teachers of introductory courses in literature and to those looking for materials for book club discussions. It is all fairly standard “This is what good literature is” and “And here [insert name of famous Western author here] shows us…” sort of stuff. But it is to his credit that Mikics feels strongly that we can never return too often to the building blocks of what it takes to get the most out of books. He lays out for general readers how to construct their own personal cathedrals of culture.

Is This Book Worth Reading?

I answer that with a qualified yes. I found Mikics’ grousing about the supposed vapidity of the age of the Web silly given what a boon the Internet, on the whole, has been to knowledge creation and dissemination. I certainly know far more about far more authors than would have been the case without it. I am a much more compassionate, open-minded, and yes, better-read person than I was before Twitter and social media came along. I learned about his book, for example, by visiting the website of Harvard University Press. He seems to have a rosy view of some supposed golden age when good literature reigned supreme. The truth, though, is that popular culture has existed for centuries in some form or other and the Internet and social media are no more harbingers of cultural downfall or global brain decay than penny dreadfuls or comic books were. But Mikics does all who care about literature a service by tackling the issue of slow reading and the future of books and culture.

Worth reading.