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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A slow-reading movement? Count me in

Everyone needs a cause, right? I’m often linked to bullying prevention because of my book The Revealers, and that’s fine; but I’ve found a new cause. Slow reading.

Apparently this is a movement, or the first stirrings of one, and I’m right on board. Like most people, these day I read nearly all my news online, along with much else — and when I’m staring at my laptop my attention tends to scatter. I hop, or it hops, from report to post to Wikipedia, on and on, as time slides away and I gain, to be honest, often really not much at all.

But in Sunday’s Washington Post (which of course I read online), there is a fine piece titled “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say.” The article leads with a graduate student at American University, who says she tends to give each online page a second or two before she “grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.” (And this is a grad student in creative writing.)

Reading experts say this is a problem. You don’t need to tell me: I keep resolving to put down the laptop and read real books at night. But these experts are finding that I might actually be adapting my brain to become averse to sustained, thoughtful reading — precisely because of all this online skittering.

“‘We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,’ said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading,” the Post reports. “‘We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.’”

So why not a slow-reading movement? The parallels with slow food are plain. The fast food that we so often habituate ourselves to gobbling on the run is in its composition addictive, filled with empty simple sugars and carbs; it gives us very little real nutrition. Skitter-scamper reading online does much the same. We get hooked on it, and we usually don’t come away very nourished.

For me, the first step in joining the slow-reading movement — I have decided this, just right now — is committing myself to lay down the laptop by 9 p.m. at the latest, every evening that I’ve got free time, and invest in reading a book instead. A real book — a novel or nonfiction that is something I want to read, but that also asks something of me in the reading.

“We can’t turn back,” declares reading expert Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, author of Proust and the Squid: The Science of the Reading Brain (which I need to read), in the Post article. All our online newsreading, research, networking, and info-gathering are here to stay. They offer us tremendous empowerment and advantages — but we also need to consciously reinvest ourselves in reading that asks us to focus. To stay with a succession of pages. To go deeper.

After she'd pushed herself to spend time taking in a novel by Hermann Hesse, Wolf says, “it was like I recovered. I found my ability to slow down, savor and think.”

Myself, I’m heading this afternoon to our college town’s two used bookstores. I always used to love used bookstores. If you dig around, you never know what you might find.

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