Friday, September 25, 2009

Tyler Comes Out of the Closet; or, On the Virtues of Reading Slow

Yep. You guessed it.

I'm coming out. As a slow reader, that is.

Very slow, in fact. Sometimes painfully slow. And when I say painful, I mean it in a debilitating sense, in that I often dread picking up longer texts or texts that I know will be dense (linguistically or philosophically) because, on one hand, I'm afraid I'll miss some important aspect of the text's character and, in the process, miss out on a potential (textual) friendship.

I'm finally becoming comfortable enough with this readerly nature to admit out loud (as it were) that I'm a slow reader, but it's taken me time to sidle up to the idea, especially because it seems that the circles I run in online and at school and, more generally, as a consumer of American culture, value reading fast, for quantity over quality. I have nothing against speed reading; it has it's own virtues. In fact, I'm quite envious of those who can speed through a bookshelf like they're cruising the autobahn. And sure, my time is at a premium and I have to read some things fast (although my fast is likely someone else's very slow); but I feel most myself, most confident and content, when I can make time to explore the nooks and crannies of a text such that I can really engage it (as best I can) on its own terms; when I can build something of a relationship with it.

This admission comes in the wake of an essay I was reading this morning ("Old School") by William Monroe, professor of English at The University of Houston and once student of Wayne Booth. Exploring how Booth's rhetorical pedagogy sparked a transformation in his life, his scholarship, and his teaching, Monroe shares this moment of "blessing and validation" that came only after he'd struggled for a time to feel at home in Booth's "Interpreting Intellectual Texts" classroom at the University of Chicago. Quoting his 1978 classmate Todd Weir:
Booth brought in a Faulkner passage and asked us to read it carefully and then we would discuss it as usual. We all bowed our heads and read. I quickly scanned the passage and achieved my goal---the first one to look up. Wayne noticed. We waited as heads rose one by one, each studying the group to find his place in the scheme of speed. Finally the slow talking guy from Texas [Monroe] raised his head, dead last. Wayne asked me about the piece and I was off to the races, expounding. . . . When I was done, Wayne asked if anyone, perhaps, had a different understanding of the passage. The Texan raised his hand and Wayne simply said, “Bill.” At that point a bright sun began to shine and like Icarus, flying too high, my reading came plunging down. It was clear that I had missed the point entirely. I mean, I got it just about dead wrong. Then it was Wayne’s turn. The lesson? Good readers are not fast readers. In fact, they are slow, even the slowest. . . .(16; italics mine)
After I read this experience, I felt a rush of blessing and validation flow into my own life. Because, you see, I've struggled, really struggled, with shaping my vocational life to my intellectual nature and desires, including my tendency to read really slow. And while I've got a long way to go before these vestments fit (if they ever will), I read Weir's simple declaration---"Good readers are not fast readers. In fact, they are slow, even the slowest"---and gave myself permission to be a slow reader, to let my mind explore more fully the texts I read. To let it weigh the implications of 'this' against 'that' as I read and to take whatever notes may come, copious or spare. To grapple with the author in my attempt to understand and grasp the full measure of his/her world.

And to chew on the language no matter how long I need to masticate the full bodied flavor of each textual space.