Saturday, April 19, 2014

on "slow reading."

I guess how I think of it is a "thing" now. (Or maybe I read the term somewhere and wound up thinking I came up with it).

There's been some concern voiced that reading stuff online - which tends to be bite-sized, rather than meal-sized - is affecting people's ability to comprehend longer or more challenging pieces.

Apparently literature professors are noticing this: "“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.' They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”""

 I wonder how much of it, though, is "can't" versus "don't really want to."

This makes me a little sad. I read "Middlemarch" about 10 years ago and I do remember at times it took considerable concentration, or I had to go back and re-read sections: it's a challenging book.

But I read it on my own, as an adult more mature than the typical college student. Also, one of the beauties of being able to read what I want, on my own schedule, is that if I bog down and lose the thread of one of the plotlines, it's easy enough to go back, re-read, and pick it back up.

Other beauties of reading on your own as an adult:

1. You can read whatever you want to. You don't have to read "the classics" if you don't care for them. Nor do you have to read bestsellers if you don't care for THEM. You can read all the work of one author if you want.

2. You can indulge your odd little reading quirks - as I said, you can read all the work of one author if you want (I still have that little life goal of reading all of Shakespeare's plays. Next up, I think, after I finish my current novel, is Richard III). Or you can read or re-read a series in order. Penguin is republishing all (apparently all) of the Maigret mysteries.....I'm really tempted to get the ones I don't already own and read them in order. (I can read a Maigret, at least in English, in a couple days).

3. You never have to take an exam on the book. You never have to write an essay on some particular topic from the book. You don't have to suss out whether your instructor hews to a certain political or theoretical view, and craft your essays to fit that view so you get a better grade (that's sad but true in some courses....)

4. You can take as long as you want. When I read "Middlemarch," it took me somewhere between six months and a year. Of course, I was doing other things at the time and I often didn't have much time to read "for fun" on any given day. It took me a couple years to read "Bleak House," including a couple of restarts when I got frustrated with the novel, put it aside for quite a while, and then forgot where I was or the thread of the story.

I took Great Books I and II as my literature courses in college. One of the things that frustrated me was the pace at which we were expected to read - I joked to one of my friends in the class that it should be called "If this is Tuesday, then this must be Plato" (a la the old fast European tours). I don't remember all that much of what I read because being forced to read really fast (especially when I have other classes with a certain amount of reading) causes my comprehension to tank.

I do think there are different style of reading, and different "ways" of reading that are beneficial to learn. I use the skimming method a lot - reading stuff online, checking up on news, looking at science news that I might want to mention in class but that I don't need to know deeply. Or a very superficial reading like for magazines. But I do read more deeply - when I read for my own edification, or when I read fiction for my own entertainment. (And probably there are differences in how I read depending on if that fiction is something like a Simenon mystery or a Dickens novel).

When I'm reading to "learn" something - whether it's a journal article for my research, or a book about history  - I'm willing to go back, to re-read parts, maybe even read the whole thing again (well, for articles, not necessarily for a 500 page book). And I will also go back in some novels, if I lose the narrative thread or if a character pops back up 50 pages later and I go "Who he?"

Digression: one thing I notice about a lot of Victorian-era novels is that they have a bunch of different narrative strands, which tend to come together and tie up as the novel nears its end. Dickens does this a lot, as do Trollope and also George Eliot. I know Dickens' novels were serialized in magazines (Don't know about the others but they could have been; that was a very common thing then). That's sure a way to increase circulation: print a chapter of a novel, end it on some cliffhanger ("Does Little Nell live?") and then, have the next chapter that comes out - or the next three chapters - be on one of those unrelated threads.

Right now, I'm reading Eliot's "Adam Bede." This was her first novel, apparently. I'm enjoying it. I am finding it a much simpler read than I remember Middlemarch being. (Of course, her novel Silas Marner used to regularly be taught to grade school students. I have never read it, so I can't speak to its difficulty or lack thereof). The title character is a woodworker/carpenter/cabinetmaker, who is (I suspect) going to be the hero of the piece (along with his younger brother, Seth). However, there's also the interesting story of Dinah Morris, who is a Methodist woman who goes and "preaches" out on greens and open places. It's interesting to me because the novel is set at the very end of the eighteenth century, and I didn't know that women were allowed to preach then - apparently they could not have a church (well, the Methodists would not have, in those days, in England; they would have had "chapel" instead) or been officially ordained, but they could do a sort of missions-work.

Another interesting thing in the novel - if a little sad - is seeing some of the open prejudice of Church of England people for the "dissenters" - which is what the Methodists were considered.

(Side question: how did the "early " Methodists or the British ones differ from the American denomination by that name? From my reading of Victorian novels, I get the sense that the old-school Methodists were stereotyped as very serious and severe and even somewhat dour, which does not seem to have continued today)

One thing I find slightly difficult with the novel is the dialect. A lot of the dialog is written in a dialect that "sounds" to me to be a bit North Country or perhaps a bit West Country. (Supposedly the town where it was set was based on one in Northwest England). In a few cases I've had to read a line out loud so I could really "hear" what the word was, and then figure it out based on how it sounded and what the word would sound like in either RP English or in my own American English.

My copy of Adam Bede is a nice old Zodiac Press edition. It was, in fact, bought long before I was aware that some book-collectors collect and prize the Zodiac Press editions; it just was a nice book that I didn't already have at a good price. The typeface is comfortable to read, the book is a nice size...and yes, that matters to me. The physicality of a book is part of its pleasure for me, which is why I tend to be disinclined to get an e-reader. (Also, in that article I linked, they refer to a study that showed a group of engineering students actually had better reading comprehension from reading on paper than on a screen. Granted, it was a small and rather specific sample, but - I know I read more comfortably off paper, and I suspect my comprehension and memory for what I've read is better.)

But I do wonder about a lot of the things I like and value - books, classical music, stuff like good quality chocolate and tea - are those going to continue to be available? There's been a certain amount of discussion over SiriusXM's changing out of its "40s on 4" channel - which played big-band music - for a Billy Joel channel. They say the change is temporary but I would not be surprised if they decided to get rid of the "old fogey" music. Which is sad, because that channel actually used to be one of my pre-sets. I am not sufficiently a fan of Billy Joel to want to listen to a channel only devoted to him. But I did enjoy occasionally listening to the swing music. But I do wonder: how many in my generation care about classical music, or swing music? How many of us still care about nicely-produced books (or about books at all, given the statistics about the number of people who claim not to have read a single book in the past year)? (and where are the snows of yesteryear? I may just be getting old.)

1 comment:

CGHill said...

As regards the difference in Methodists, it stems from a rift between John Wesley, who believed in prevenient grace -- available to all -- and George Whitefield, who was strongly Calvinist. Wesley himself was among the founders of Methodism in America, which explains why the stricter Calvinist view never caught on among American Methodists. Meanwhile, followers of Whitefield dominated early British (and especially Welsh) Methodism, though eventually the Wesleyans held sway there too.

(I think this is the first time I've used anything from that Comparative Religions class I took in 1968.)