David Mikics: no prizes for coming first

by Guy Somerset / 26 December, 2013
David Mikics advocates the benefits of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.
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So many books, so little time – surely we should be reading faster, not slower? Or do we need to be more selective and get over FOMO, the fear of missing out?

We do need to get over it. The digital age tells us we’re always in danger of missing out and so we’re in a rush, constantly clicking and finger-swiping. The antidote is to slow down and think about what really gives you pleasure. It’s better to love a few books well than to sample hundreds blindly. A good book is like someone you want to know better. Figure out what you like and why, and settle down with it.

You’re not just advocating slow reading, either; it’s slow rereading as well, isn’t it? The Man Booker Prize judges received a lot of flak a few years ago when they said they were looking for “readability”. You show that with patience and effort, readability can be found in many forms.

Rereading is a great test of whether you really love a book. I know Jane Austen fans who’ve read Pride and Prejudice a dozen times. And who could ever get tired of Shakespeare? About readability: if you’re drawn to a book, don’t give up just because it seems too hard. If you have the right tools (I describe them in my book) and you give yourself the time, there’s nothing that’s too difficult.

Your book could be taken as an argument against the value of book reviews, very few of which are written under the conditions you recommend.

I write book reviews, and when I do I try to give the reader a taste of the book I’m reviewing. I describe it as much and as well as I can, instead of just giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The author deserves a fair shake.

It has been the year of the big novel, from Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Is it just me or is there something intrinsic to books of that size that slows you down: makes you abandon thoughts of a speedy finish and instead immerse yourself?

Whether it’s a brand-new best-seller or an old standby, the long novel is a whole world in itself. Make it last. I spent all last summer reading War and Peace for the first time – sometimes on the playground or the beach, sometimes late at night. Tolstoy’s men and women were always waiting for me, whenever I wanted to spend time with them.

You’re a fan of marginalia. Making notes on the side of the page …

In my book, I talk about some of the masters of marginalia, like the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose marginal scribbles add up to hundreds of pages. You can do it, too, even if you just make a few notes: what struck you, what feelings or thoughts were prompted by that crucial page? You’re having a conversation with the author, pencil in hand.

It’s summer here in New Zealand. As we head off to beach and bach, it’s the perfect time to put your book into practice. Any other tips?

Turn off the iPhone or leave it in the car: forget about those nagging messages and emails for a little while. Reading well, for real enjoyment, means surrendering to the book in your hand. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

SLOW READING IN A HURRIED AGE, by David Mikics (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, $49.95).

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