We conspire in an unspoken agreement that our carefully considered choices are more a measure of students' inadequacy than our hopes for them, so they increasingly stay home as the weeks, and the novels, fly by. Like a high-speed train through gorgeous countryside, a novel a week turns the lovely hinterland of literature into a meaningless blur. Slow down, and the landscape changes: tempting byways appear; curiosity is given a chance to supplant urgent strategy. Acoustic engineers like to leave "headroom" in a recording, fine wine must apparently be allowed to breathe, and great books deserve space to come into their own.
Slow reading, like slow food, is about savouring rather than gobbling. The alternative, as voluntary reading continues to decline, is the futile effort of policing: quizzes, exams and journals that, whatever their other merits, purchase reassurance about students' reading at the cost of deep engagement.
Thomas Newkirk isn't the first or most prominent proponent of the so-called "slow reading" movement, but he argues it's becoming all the more important in a culture and educational system that often treats reading as fast food to be gobbled up as quickly as possible.
"You see schools where reading is turned into a race, you see kids on the stopwatch to see how many words they can read in a minute," he said. "That tells students a story about what reading is. It tells students to be fast is to be good."
Newkirk is encouraging schools from elementary through college to return to old strategies such as reading aloud and memorization as a way to help students truly "taste" the words. He uses those techniques in his own classroom, where students have told him that they've become so accustomed from flitting from page to page online that they have trouble concentrating while reading printed books.
"One student told me even when he was reading a regular book, he'd come to a word and it would almost act like a hyper link. It would just send his mind off to some other thing," Newkirk said. "I think they recognize they're missing out on something."
I fail to see how words acting as hyperlinks is a problem. If a particular idea, phrase or single word inspires a certain synapse to fire in my brain, I follow its trajectory and come back to the original reading when I'm ready. I make and see connections within and beyond the text in front of me.
I also have some measure of resistance to memorization and even to reading aloud. I can see some benefits to both, but memorization outside of an acting or poetry class appears as rather pointless to me. Is it possible to savor an essay, such as "Consider the Lobster," by David Foster Wallace, without memorization? Absolutely. How can this happen? By engaging with it by way of discussion.