Reading: slow and difficult

A lot of stuff has been written about slow reading lately, and more generally lamenting the loss of concentration the modern world has apparently inflicted upon our fractured brains. My supervisor at Bath Spa University, Greg Garrard, has written about his decision to shorten the reading lists on his courses to allow his students a level of deeper reading – although he admits a lot of students will take this as an opportunity for deeper slacking. I remember when I was taking the un-shortened Twentieth Century European Novel and Twentieth Century American Novel I spent a good few months where every Sunday (it was always a Sunday) I had to barricade myself in my bedroom, away from my housemates, and dispatch at least one novel, sometimes two. But then I also remember spending a good deal of that year hanging around in the late lamented Secession Books or watching the bookshop’s band play in the various cellar establishments of Bath.

In the introduction to the new edition of Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers John Lechte writes about the way people don’t tend to read complex philosophical works so much as they read other books about complex philosophical works – books that make the original texts easier to digest. People don’t have the patience or the time for difficult reading, it seems, though he argues that books such as his own should be seen as guides rather than as replacements. (I really love Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers. It’s perfect for those moments when you can’t quite remember who says what.)

I remember towards the beginning of my second year in Bath, going to a party above the bookshop and chatting to someone about how I hadn’t felt particularly challenged so far at university – that I could bullshit my way through it as much as I could at school. I was talking to an ex-lecturer from Sydney who was then working back in graphic design. She listened very sympathetically but then told me I had basically got it all wrong – that university wasn’t a place where learning happened to you, but more like a space in which you could learn, if you wanted to. Somewhere where I could take off in whatever direction I chose.

This was something of a lightbulb moment. I can’t say that I instantly applied myself from then on, but I did start to work a lot more – taking myself off on sallies up the Further Reading lists, or on entirely off-piste reading lists of my own construction. One of these led to Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov and thus to my undergraduate dissertation, and on to my MA. That aspect of my BA I had most disliked to begin with – the space – I eventually found the most rewarding.

My MA was largely lacking in such ‘space’. The list of books that had to be read right now was always ridiculously long and constantly lengthening, and I was lucky: I’d read War and Peace and Dostoevsky etc before I started, and was therefore more fortunate than some of my colleagues who first learned of certain character deaths in class. I think a lot of the ‘difficult reading’ suffered for the speed with which it was consumed: I’m now fairly convinced I completely misunderstood The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction, for example. Difficult reading also requires reinforcement, literal re-vision, or I find it simply drops out of my head. But what this sort of study lacked in space it made up for with intensity. When you’re constantly mainlining books things start happening to your head – walls fall off, strange illuminating connections are made. It’s intoxicating. But I know I dropped a lot of balls – reading back over my notebooks, I see the beginnings of ideas, connections tentatively made, which were abandoned because the next week we’d moved on to something else.  This sort of reading is addictive, though – I’m still under its sway, always extending my Amazon wishlist, always conscious of the endless stuff out there to be stuffed in.

The enormous weight of books – all flashing their blurbs, all whispering that they must be read – doesn’t make slow reading easy, even if you take the distractibility of the modern mind out of the equation. Another of my former lecturers, Sarah J Young from SSEES, wrote recently about the problems of re-reading books: the frustration of going back over old ground versus the fresh insights gained. What’s a better use of time – close, savouring reading of one thing, forsaking all others, or the speedy consumption of the all-others? My feeling is blend of both will always be the practical solution, though it will always be unsatisfactory. During the brief spell towards the end of my A-levels when I actually began to work quite hard, I used to daydream of a secret room hidden somewhere in the Barbican, near school, where time would stand still while you caught up with your reading or, better yet, took a nap. Short of such a room for either purpose, the answer to the problem of reading will always be a frustrating compromise.

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