UCSB Commencement, 2012-13

Chair’s Speech as delivered at the English Department Major’s Reception, UCSB Commencement, June 16 2013.

“Slow Reading”
Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, Acting Chair

Welcome to our graduates – and welcome to all the families and friends who have supported your graduates on the long trip to the happy celebration today. Warmest congratulations to each of you!

Since we don’t have Powerpoint out here in Girvetz Courtyard, I have to ask you to take an old-media route today to help me start this address. Please take a minute to picture in your minds a familiar yellow traffic sign – it’s usually rectangular – the one that features a running stick figure with the word “slow” at the top and “children” at the bottom, or sometimes “Slow” at the top and “Children at Play” across the bottom. Can everyone visualize the sign I mean? That’s good – because now I can proceed with a joke about grammar and punctuation.

If at some point you are sitting around with an internet connection and some time to burn, you can google some of the would-be witty appropriations of that sign riffing on the idea of “slow children” – jokes made possible by the fact that the people who design traffic signs don’t use punctuation. What you’ll find are visual puns based on how a driver might assume that here “slow” has the grammatical function of an adjective modifying the noun “children.” Of course, that reading carries with it a whole set of now-outmoded assumptions about a normative desirable speed of mental processes and athletic abilities. The actual intended grammatical function of “slow” on the sign is a command or imperative: it tells drivers to proceed with caution lest they injure kids — any and all sorts of kids of all abilities and agility levels — who might happen to be playing nearby. My point here is that the misreading of the traffic sign that sets up those parodies depends on the negative associations of the term “slow.” As my colleague Enda Duffy has shown, speed became the keynote of European and American modernism sometime around the beginning of the 20th c., and since then “slow” has almost always been ‘bad.’ This is especially true in the context of our digital media, where speed continues to be the key criterion for 21st-c. communications technologies – as in phrases like “4G peakspeed service streams at 1 gigabit of information per second.”

But since the turn of the 21st c., a challenge to the negative connotations of slowness has emerged by way of a cluster of social movements that proudly wave the banner of “slow.” Slowness is now a positive label associated with local connections, human-scale networks, the handcrafted as opposed to the mass-produced, and new practices like social-media sabbaticals. In Europe, anti-globalization and pro-local types have come together under the name “Slow Cities.” There is a “Slow Design” movement, and “Slow Gardening”; there is even “Slow Money,” an organization that seeks to steer venture capital toward artisanal food enterprises, small organic farms, and local food systems. In 1999, the World Institute of Slowness was founded. Related to all these, and more directly relevant to my subject today, there is an official Slow Book Movement and, distinct from this, a Slow-Books Manifesto (you can find it online!), promoting something called “slow reading.”

Slow reading is something I endorse and encourage. But no surprise, when I first pitch the phrase to a UCSB student, it can be a hard sell. After all, you all got into UCSB by learning the kind of super-extractive ‘speedy reading,’ skimming, or scanning that helps produce high SAT, ACT, and AP Literature scores. This kind of reading is a terrific tool: it goes straight to the content of a text so you can pry out what it’s saying. But on the other hand, it flattens out the surfaces and forms of a text — the specific words that build its paragraphs, delineate its images, and carry its ideas and themes. Committed to leveraging the skills they already possess, students often see no reason to relinquish speedy reading any time before, say, their retirement years — whenever that will be.

But the case for slow reading is getting easier to make, as more and more studies are published about how our interactions with online media reshape our brains. In the last decade, arguments for practicing “slow reading” have emerged out of dyslexia and ADHD research, New Media studies, and the field of “literary neuroscience,” – all bolstering an argument for the value of slow or absorptive reading. Now we can better explain why we ask you to add “slow reading” to the extensive toolbox of critical and communications skills that you’ve acquired during your studies in the major.

I’ll admit that some promoters of “slow” have adopted a kind of lame rhetorical strategy. Take the example of Sven Birkerts’s influential early work The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994). The title strikes an anxious, melancholic, even Luddite note about fast media that doesn’t resonate at all for those of us who love our smartphones, iPads, Reddit, Mashable, Instagram, Vine, and Pinterest sites — not to mention the ease and seamlessness of research when all texts are digitally accessible.

But what exactly are we writing the elegies for? Is there a reading crisis? And are new media really the enemies of old media? In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain (2011), Nicholas Carr suggests that a better response would be to cultivate both kinds of reading, fast and slow, to become skilled users of all kinds of media, old and new. Carr reminds us that the “natural state of the human brain … is one of distractedness.” We are predisposed to a kind of jazzy alertness, shifting our attention rapidly to track everything going around us. Quick changes of focus let us monitor potential predators or food sources. What we might call distractedness is natural to primates. In contrast, reading demands the suppression of that natural alertness. When we are first learning to read, we have to train ourselves to an unnatural extension of attention and absorption, ignoring the stimulating signals from the world beyond the page. The Western historical stages of that training, the broad social transition from an oral culture in which texts were recited to one in which they were silently read, are evident in a vignette from Augustine’s Confessions, written at the end of the 4th c. Augustine is amazed to see Bishop Ambrose reading to himself without moving his lips: “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.” Ambrose’s silent reading and Augustine’s impressed response form an emblem of the then-new technology of silent, absorbed or “slow reading.”

Carr argues strongly that this change in reading practices wasn’t about trading activity for passivity or about narrowing our world to the abstract, because reading enriches and expands our experience not only figuratively but also materially, at the level of brain function and development. Studies using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology have shown that we process what we are reading as a kind of virtual reality. For example, words like “perfume” and “coffee” produce activity in the olfactory cortex; descriptions of texture, even metaphorical expressions like “The singer’s velvet voice,” stimulate the sensory cortex. When we read about grabbing something or kicking a ball, the motor cortex responds.

Of course all our media use, whether screen- or page-based, stimulates the brain and builds different kinds of mental agility. For example, a 2009 UCLA study showed that frequent use of screen-based technology enhances visual-spatial skills: people who use digital media a lot can mentally rotate objects more skillfully than people with less on-line experience. On the other hand, and here’s where the stakes get high for Carr, the subjects in the study identified as the heaviest internet users showed less capacity for “deep processing; … mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.” Those are faculties and skills with direct, obvious value in our personal, civic, and professional lives, and Carr argues that we can develop them by spending some time reading as well as clicking.

If fMRI experiments don’t convince you, we can find other excellent arguments for slow reading when we turn to the ways writers over the centuries have described the benefits and pleasures of reading. To accompany Augustine’s account of Ambrose, the program for today’s reception includes three passages that celebrate moments of absorptive engagement with old media and suggest what they give us. It’s no surprise that these passages acknowledge slow reading to be demanding and difficult; the surprise, and the good news, is that they also remind us that it can be enormously pleasurable.

First, a passage from Thomas Pynchon’s mid-20th-c. novel The Crying of Lot 49, in which Oedipa Maas, a young homemaker, learns that she has been made executor of an ex-boyfriend’s rich and complicated estate. In this passage, we see her as she arrives in southern California to begin the process of learning to untangle and interpret the dead man’s will. She compares her first sight of the town of San Narciso to an earlier glimpse of a transistor radio’s printed circuit board: both are significant texts that invite and resist being deciphered. “Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, or an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.”

Notice how the vision is not quite clear, it’s trembling or shimmering , so that Oedipa can’t quite make it out. We see that shimmering again in another passage about reading written a hundred and fifty years earlier, one my colleague Alan Liu has written about. William Wordsworth asks us to imagine the complex act of interpretation that is involved when we look down into still water: we see what is actually below the surface, fish and weeds and sand and rocks, and we also see reflections of what’s above the water, including the reflection of ourselves looking. And at the same time, everything we see is affected by the movement of the medium itself, the liquid flows of currents and disturbances, so that the looker “often is perplexed and cannot part / The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky, / Mountains and clouds, reflected in the depth / Of the clear flood, from things which there abide in their true dwelling.” The passage stresses that the process of deciphering is perplexing and unresolved, but this experience of delayed resolution itself results in pleasure: the beauties and difficulties of perception, its refusal to fix itself, its shimmering and wavering, are “impediments that make [our] task more sweet.”

As depictions of reading, both Pynchon’s and Wordsworth’s texts depict meaning as hovering just beyond the moment of telling, so that we are suspended in the process of reading itself. In my final example, that sense of deferral and suspension is even more powerfully marked: this is the vision of the traveler in Dante’s Divine Comedy on the last leg of his journey as he is guided through Paradise. Near the end of the tour he is momentarily granted a superhuman vision: he sees the separate, scattered, incommensurate elements of the material world — its “substances, accidents, and dispositions” – assembled and ordered just as the different words and many pages of a book are arranged to enable us to read and understand. Of course, Dante’s traveler has to return to the human world; he doesn’t get to read the book – yet; and as the passage notes, he isn’t even confident that he can now describe what he (thinks he) saw – but just writing about that incompleted, suspended act of apprehension brings him enormous joy.

Graduates, in the years ahead you will need both speedy reading and slow reading; old media and new media; you are well equipped by your studies to enjoy the pleasures and challenges of both. Thanks for your time with us here, congratulations again, and remember that sometimes it’s good to be slow, children.