There have been a couple of articles recently on the “slow reading” movement, one in Newsweek and one in the Guardain. Actually, “movement” may be a bit strong; it seems to be more of an impulse, or a reaction against our 24-7 ultra-connected, multitasking, information-saturated lives. (Where “we” are a relatively small minority of affluent elites, just to be clear.)
Slow reading is just what is sounds like: taking your time, really engaging with a text, not skimming or snacking on bits and pieces of information. The concerns of the slow reading movement echo those of technology writer Nicholas Carr, who in an Atlantic Monthly article from 2008 worried that Google was making us stupid. That is, re-wiring our neural circuitry to make it harder for us to pay sustained attention to a piece of writing, or an argument, or narrative. (Carr followed up his article with a book called The Shallows that has gotten a lot of attention.)
I think most of us probably sense that there’s something to this. I know that when I’m reading something online the urge to follow a link or open a new tab is almost irresistible. Rarely do I read anything of substantial length online from start to finish they way I might when reading, say, a long magazine article or a novel. It does seem to require more effort to pay attention.
If this is right, it has implications beyond reading. The ability to pay attention–to attend to some person, or thing that exists apart from (but also in relation to) us–plays a large role in the moral and spiritual life. The philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch argued that the moral life begins in the ability to appreciate something–a part of nature, a body of knowledge, a person–for its own sake, independent of any benefit it may have for us. In other words, to pay attention. Buddhism teaches that the path to liberation is learning to pay attention to reality without the distortions imposed upon it by the chattering of our minds. Christian prayer involves paying intentional attention to God–the ultimate context of Being. So, if our minds are rendered incapable of sustaining that kind of focus (and, to be fair, not everyone agrees this is happening), what happens to us as moral and spiritual agents?