Fionnuala Kennedy, Senior Deputy Head, looks at the benefits of slow reading with reference to recent pieces on BBC Radio 4 and in The Guardian.
Two things happened recently which made me stop and think and – believe me – this is not a common occurrence in the month of September when you’re a Deputy Head. The first was a brilliantly written article by Maryanne Wolf in ‘The Guardian’. Wolf is the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, and she writes with integrity and from a well-researched foundation of data about the areas of learning we are losing as we become digital and therefore skim, rather than deep, readers. It’s not just our inability to remember sequences of information and details which is in decline, but – and much more troublingly – our ability to ‘understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own’. In other words, we are losing the magical moments in reading described so perfectly by Alan Bennett’s (albeit hugely flawed) character Hector in ‘The History Boys’:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours”.
And, if deep – even slow –reading helps to make us more empathetic and feel less alone, then it stands to reason that a society of skim readers is a weaker society.
But we have also to accept that tech is not only here to stay, but will continue to develop at a stratospheric rate. And that’s the way it should be. It’s very easy as educators and parents to tut at Gen Z and their screen time addictions, but that is unhelpful at best and hypocritical at worst.
The second thing which caught my attention this week was the brilliant Radio 4 satire ‘Agendum’, in which they make the point – very much more wittily than I am about to – that we talk about screen time ill-preparing our teens for everyday living, even as we sit at our desks day in, day out, tapping away in front of screens. We are all in this together, not just young people; indeed, when I shared Wolf’s article with the academic management team, one of them confessed that ironically she had skim read it…
So, as Sherry Turkle points out, it is not advancement which is the problem – ever – but rather our inability to either predict or preserve the positive aspects of what we do which said advancement disrupts or even destroys. And so the baby gets thrown out with the bath water. It’s like someone who decides to exercise more giving up the notion of lying down entirely; it’s great to be active but we still need to rest. So Wolf suggests that we need to ‘cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums’. In other words, we need to adapt to our new digital, high-speed culture by practising and thus preserving our ability to read in-depth.
Which ties in perfectly with the talk we hosted last week by Carl Honore, who is the ‘guru’ of what he has coined ‘Slow Living’. In a world where being busy, tired and even stressed seems not only the norm but something of a badge of honour, it’s time to slow down when we need to, to adapt our speed according to the task and to the moment. If you’re reading a weather report to see whether you need to take your umbrella out with you, or a summary of a Netflix show to see if you’d like to watch it, or an Ocado recipe as you do a mental stock take of the ingredients you’ll need to buy, skim reading is fine, appropriate, good, even. If you’re reading ‘Middlemarch’, perhaps a skim isn’t doing it, or you, or society, any justice.