Are we doomed to read distractedly in the digital age? Technology seems to deter slow, immersive reading. Scrolling down a web page with your thumb feels innately less attentive than turning over the pages of a book. Reading on a screen, particularly a phone screen, tires your eyes and makes it harder for you to keep your place. So online writing tends to be more skimmable and list-like than print. At the top of a web article, we are now often told how long it would detain us, forewarned that the words below are a “15-minute read.” The online reader’s put-down is TL;DR. Too long; didn’t read. The cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf argued recently that this “new norm” of skim reading is producing “an invisible, game-changing transformation” in how readers process words. The neuronal circuit that underpins the brain’s capacity to read now favours the rapid ingestion of information, rather than skills fostered by deeper reading, like critical analysis and empathy. We shouldn’t overplay these dangers. All readers skim. Skimming is the skill we acquire as children as we learn to read more sophisticatedly. From about the age of nine, our eyes start to bounce around the page, reading only about a quarter of the words properly, and filling in the gaps by inference. One of the little miracles of silent reading is that we can do it so quickly and yet also sub-vocalise, semi-hearing the words in our heads. Skimming is all part of that virtuoso human act.
Nor is there anything new in these fears about declining attention spans. So far, the anxieties have proved false alarms. “Quite a few critics have been worried about attention span lately and see very short stories as signs of cultural decadence – bonbons for lazy readers,” the American author Charles Baxter wrote back in 1989, in an introduction to an anthology of flash fiction. “No one ever said that sonnets or haikus were evidence of short attention spans.” And yet the internet has certainly changed the way we read. For a start, it means that there is more to read because more people than ever are writing. If you time travelled just a few decades into the past, you would wonder at how little writing was happening, outside a classroom. There would be no people sitting in coffee shops urgently stabbing their laptops with two fingers, or updating the social network with the headline news of their lives. You might see the odd person signing a cheque or pencilling in an appointment in their Filofax. But mostly writing would be farmed out to professionals, and appear only in print.
In the analogue era, the writing was read much later than it was written. Digital writing is meant for rapid release and response. Text or tweet is a slightly interrupted, virtual way of having a conversation. An online article starts forming a comment thread underneath as soon as it is published. This mode of writing and reading can be democratic, interactive and fun. But often it treats other people’s words as something to be quickly harvested as fodder to say something else. Everyone talks over the top of everyone else, straining to be heard. “A poem is an interruption of silence, whereas prose is a continuation of noise,” the poet Billy Collins once said. Poets and lyrically minded prose writers see the written word rather as Quaker worship sees the spoken word: they think it more powerful if it emerges out of and is separated by silence. Writing and reading online, we struggle to find this silence out of which words can materialise and be contemplated. There is too much speaking and reacting, and not enough listening and reflecting.
Perhaps we should slow down. We hear a lot today about recovering the lost virtues of slowness – by, for instance, spending time on locally sourcing and preparing a meal, or leaving children to explore the world unsupervised and at their own pace. But the slow reading movement has yet to take off in the same way. Reading is constantly promoted as a social good and source of personal fulfilment. But this advocacy often emphasises “avid,” “passionate” or “voracious” reading – none of which adjectives suggest slow, quiet absorption. Lately, I have been trying – with difficulty, because I am by nature a grazer and skimmer – to read more slowly. I trace the margin with my finger as I read, like a learner-reader, so I can pause and think about what I have just read and not lose my place. And I often read aloud, or at least move my lips, even if that means getting some odd looks in public places. Reading aloud slows you down and obliges you to notice the words, to start giving them the kind of attention the writer gave them. That is how Shakespeare would have been taught to read and write at grammar school – rote learning the art of verbal ornament, getting to know how the words themselves felt in the mouth before they calcified into sense and logic.
Online writing is often designed to be mined for its “take home” or “takeaway” lesson, or perhaps its “take down” of another piece. Most below-the-line comment focuses on whether the commenter agrees with the writer. It rarely mentions what a piece of writing was actually like to read. To a slow reader, the medium can’t be detached from its message in this way. A piece of writing is not simply a “take” on something, but a rhetorical exercise in pace, rhythm, tone, texture and voice. Ultimately it is irreducible to precis or paraphrase. It can only be fully understood by immersing oneself in the words and their slow unravelling of a line of thought. The slow reader is like a swimmer who stops counting the number of pool laps they have done and just enjoys how their body feels and moves in the water. Slow reading feels to me like a more generous, collegiate form of reading – rather as listening is a more generous act than speaking, and more difficult. Slow reading gives someone else (the writer) the gift of your time, without any guaranteed return, and with the risk that you will be bored or discomforted by the writing’s strangeness or difficulty. Slow reading is a gradual encounter with the obdurate otherness of another person’s mind. Like any such encounter, it should take as long as it takes and be its own end.
The human need for this kind of deep reading is too tenacious for any new technology to destroy. We often assume that technological change happens inexorably and in one direction, so that older media like “dead-tree” books are shoved out by newer, more virtual forms. In practice, older technologies are quite resilient and can coexist with new ones. The Kindle has not killed off the printed book any more than the car killed off the bicycle. When digital TV arrived 20 years ago, most people thought that viewers would zap quickly through the hundreds of channels and television would have to be fast and loud to keep their attention. In fact, the great success of the digital era has been long, multi-stranded box-set dramas that demand huge intellectual and emotional commitment from viewers. As with deep viewing, the hunger for deep reading endures. We still read intricate, involving novels. We still seek out layered, contemplative writing online that resists the impulse to reduce itself to glibly articulate opinion. We still want to savour slowly gestated ideas and carefully chosen words. Even in a fast-moving age, there is time for slow reading.
Credit: Joe Moran for The Guardian, 14 September 2018.