Transcript for Slow Reading in a Hurried Age - David Mikics

Jim Fleming: One of the great pleasures of reading is the experience of sinking so deeply into the world of a book that it becomes more real than the real world. Today that kind of reading is increasingly a luxury. In our hyper connected, always on world of endless information we're all skimming, and skipping, and browsing just to keep up. Literary scholar David Mikics worries that reading deeply is becoming a bit of a lost art, so he's written a book to remind us how. It's called "Slow Reading in a Hurried Age."  Anne Strainchamps talks with him. Anne Strainchamps: David, slow reading calls to mind the slow food and the slow travel movements. How do you make the case for slow reading?

David Mikics: One of the great theorists of reading, one of the great wise men about reading was John Ruskin and in the 19th century he warns against what he describes "shallow, blotching, blundering, infectious information." So Ruskin's point, rather aggressively made, is that if you read for information or just for information then you'll be reading too quickly. You're just reading to get the gist of things, just to sort of skim and skip and get the basic point. You're not really entering into a book. You're not seeing what the author of a book has to offer you. You have to try to learn to think along with the author or to think along with the characters and to really immerse yourself in it. To do that, it's important to slow down.

Strainchamps: You come up with a number of rules or guidelines for slow reading so let's talk about a few of them. One of the first is be patient. What do you mean by that?

Mikics: What I want people to do is be patient with themselves. If they try a book and after the couple of pages they find themselves frustrated, they think, "Oh, this is not for me. It's too difficult, too unappealing," well, yes, you can set it aside but try it again later. Give yourself another chance. There has been a number of times when I've had that feeling myself. I've thought, "Well, I'm not in the mood for this. This seems to me too difficult, too serious, or too light, too trivial," and later on I found it just right. So many times I've come to a book for the third time or even the fourth time and then loved it. So that's one sense of being patient. Another sense is realizing that a book has many folds in it. It has a lot of richness, a good book, in that you'll learn more when you come back to it a second time. Rereading is another of my recommended practices.

Strainchamps: Really? In this world of so many great books to read, you advocate rereading?

Mikics: I think that everyone, Anne, should have a short shelf of favorite books, a shelf of books that you can dip into just when you're in the mood when you have the feeling that you want to return to one of these old favorites, and the more you do that the more you really sense that they are old friends that you keep coming back to them.

Strainchamps: An interesting debate cropped up recently online, a debate between writers, about whether characters in a novel should be likable, or at least somewhat likable. We've all had experience of reading a novel and thinking, "I just can't stand these people." Does slow reading change the way you approach the characters in a novel?

Mikics: Well, it does. I think it gives you a wonderful sense of those writers who can make truly interesting characters, truly deep characters, and even when you feel, "Oh, I dislike that character so much. I just can't stand him or her," if you really give enough attention to the character then you do see more. You see more. You see why the author did it. I'll give you one example. In Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," Anna's lover Vronksy is perhaps the shallowest, least attractive character in the book.

Strainchamps: He's a cad. Mikics: He is a cad. He is. There's no getting around that and it remains hard to see what Anna sees in him, why she's so drawn to him, why she is so head-over-heels in love with him. It tells us something important about Anna, though, that she is attracted to him so much. There's something about herself she doesn't know that causes her to have this magnetic bond with Vronsky. But Vronsky himself too is more complicated than you might have thought. You have to get over your initial response of, "Oh, what a jerk," and start thinking about, "Well, what an interesting jerk he is." There are so many folds to that character.

Strainchamps: Do you read for self discovery? That is, when you read are you really searching for some new insights into yourself?

Mikics: Well, that's a very important question, Anne, and I think that I do. I think that all of us do when we do slow down, when we let ourself be immersed and be absorbed by the experience of reading, we really do learn something about ourselves and it may hard to define what we learn, but we do have that sense that somehow our lives are enriched. In part, they're enriched by just considering more characters, more other lives than we would ever have time to do in life. We meet more people reading literature than we have time to do during our lives.

Strainchamps: So do you a think a slow reading movement has much chance of catching on in this age of digital distraction?

Mikics: I think that there's a revolt on our hands and it's a good revolt. People are widely dissatisfied with this regimen of constant electronic stimulation that we've been given, and with all the freedom that the Internet promises: you can go here, you can go there, you can look at this, you can look at that--all you need to do is click and you can see something new--I think people are frustrated with that just because of the kind of broke rhythm that it imposes upon us. The thing that we really want to do is devote ourselves to something, devote ourselves to an experience, whether it's reading or anything else, and reading is one of the richest experiences you can have. I just finished the new Dave Eggers novel, "The Circle."  It's a dystopia about an Internet company which imposes this sort of constant bombardment of stimulation on its employees. At every moment they have to like this, or like that, or answer this survey, answer that survey, friend one another, keep in touch with everything.

Strainchamps: That sounds like life today.

Mikics: Exactly. It's hardly a futuristic vision. At one point the main character gets in trouble for going to lunch for 20 minutes without her cell phone, but of course this is something that happens now. We're not being given that refuge. We're not being given the possibility of escaping and looking into ourselves and looking into a book. We're always expected to be in touch, to be able to answer at any moment, and this is I think something new. It's something that's happened in the last 10 years or so and it's a disturbing phenomenon, something that we have to counteract. But I do think that a lot of people want to do that. They want something different in their lives. Strainchamps: So your message is: readers revolt.

Mikics: Exactly. Yes, rise up. You have nothing to lose but your electronic chains. Strainchamps: Well, David, I think a great way to end our conversation would be to ask you to read the last paragraph of your book.

Mikics: Thanks. I would love to do that.  (READING)  Emerson yearned after books which take rank in our life with parents, and lovers, and passionate experiences. And Kafka noted in a letter to his friend, Oskar Pollak, that some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one's own castle. When we read we want a book that will unlock us, even break us open. In reading, as Harold Bloom suggests, we quest after something more original than ourselves, new experience, a radical break from what we know too well. This newness finds its place in us and make us rise to embrace it. It becomes part of us, something we could always return to by the simple act of picking up the book again. Today more than ever we find ourselves frustrated by the shallow promises of digital technology, as it offers evermore rapid more ingenious and more unsatisfying ways of keeping in touch. Instead of staying up-to-the-minute we should step back and think about what Virginia Woolf, like so many others, celebrates: the rewards of slow reading. Getting lost in a book may be the surest way to find what we need.

Strainchamps: David, thank you so much for talking today.

Mikics: Thank you very much, Anne. Pleasure to be here.

Fleming: David Mikics is the author of "Slow Reading in a Hurried Age."  He spoke with Anne Strainchamps.

Comments for this interview

Very much like all Mikics' motivations for "slow reading" (Dr. Xylem Galadhon, 11/29/2013 - 4:04pm)

He explores the issues carefully and methodically, and is really a great antidote to the first interviewee Merkowski's "hyperconnectivity" rosiness.

Really loved the last paragraph of his book that he read, too.

Great stuff!