The Lost Art of Slow Reading

Why the Information Age is making us shallower.

Going paperless is simpler than ever. Like many of you, I go online to shop, make travel arrangements, manage bank accounts, pay utility bills and read the news. But when it comes to my bookshelves and file cabinets, it’s difficult for me to imagine a paperless environment.

Along two of the walls in my office, I have five rows of bookshelves sitting atop 30 file cabinet drawers. I haven’t read all the books on the shelves and I know there are files in those drawers I haven’t opened in years. But it’s a large collection of commentaries, encyclopedias, biographies, histories, periodicals, booklets, articles, clippings and notes I’ve accumulated over the past two decades.

Except for the news I skim online every day, I usually mark or highlight what I read and study. This is why I generally buy my own books and print out or photocopy important articles I run across in my research.

I still use the Internet a lot, particularly for my weekly columns. There is no substitute for the speed at which you can obtain information that used to take hours to find in a library. But at the same time, there is simply no online equivalent to the thoughts and ideas I have tucked away in the drawers and shelves of my personal library.

Besides that, studies are beginning to show that the way we read and study online is much more superficial than the way we used to study the printed word. When reading online, we tend to skim and bounce around the page. We’re often distracted by the numerous links embedded into the text and the flashing advertisements designed to grab our attention.

Because of this, as Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, “Our attachment to any one text becomes more tenuous, more provisional. Searches also lead to the fragmentation of online works. A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole. We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves” (emphasis mine throughout).

Carr believes Google’s ambitious plan to digitize all the books ever printed will only make matters worse. “To make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it,” he writes. The end result, he says, would not be a library of books—but one of snippets.

While reading the pages of Carr’s book, I kept thinking of a wonderful little book, written in 1905—one that has been on my shelf for more than 15 years. In The Art of Thinking, French philosopher Ernest Dimnet said, “Do not read good books—life is too short for that—only read the best.” He recommended a personal library of just 20 or 30 volumes—classic works that you return to over and again for greater depth and understanding. What good is an extensive library that fills our shelves, Dimnet argued, if it doesn’t fill our minds? Or, given the massive amounts of information available today, what good is a computer database containing every book known to man if all we do is skim the surface for snippets?

Even some educators are waking to the dangerous pitfalls of online multitasking and cursory reading. A few are even calling for us to return to the tried and tested method of slowly poring over the printed word. According to the Associated Press, one teacher “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 to flitting from page to page online that they have trouble concentrating while reading printed books” (June 17).

Scanning a book for a salient quote certainly has its place. So does skimming text to get the gist of the author’s intent. Even occasional Web surfing might help one get a feel for current events.

But none of this should be confused with studying the printed word. In the case of God’s Word, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The Greek word for “workman” is referring to one who exerts strenuous effort to study the right way.

Online Bible helps can offer valuable assistance in this regard. But if you are really serious about plumbing the depths of God’s inspired Word, crack open the Book alongside a companion article or booklet, grab a pen and highlighter and then start reading. Don’t skim through the information as fast as possible. Slow down—make sure what you do read gets through to you.