Reading · Teaching

Slow Reading: How What We Read Becomes Who We Are

I went to my annual conference last week. I have spent twenty-two long weekends in May in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the biggest annual international medieval conference in North America. Coming from the West coast, I always think it should take me half a day, and the last few years it has taken upwards of 16 hours. This time I pretty much decided I’ve had a good run, but I don’t have time for the chaos of travel.

So it was important that I got good stuff out of what might be my last run. So the universe obliged me. This time I came home thinking big thoughts about Slow Reading.
As my university converts from a quarter schedule to semesters starting in the fall, we are all thinking about how our courses will change. Mostly, as a literature instructor, I’m looking forward to adding some texts back in to my syllabus. I certainly took things out when I moved from fifteen-week semesters to ten-week quarters.
But as I think about my Chaucer class, and as I met with Chaucerians and other folks who teach literature (I went to a particularly great session on teaching literature in translation), I think I won’t add text so much as add depth. I’m going to embrace, model, and flex my Slow Reading skills.
My session was a workshop on pronouncing Chaucer’s Middle English. We spent 90 minutes on 220 lines of the Wife of Bath’s prologue. It was awesome.
With that much time, you can figure out what everything means, then figure out how reading it different ways changes that meaning. You can talk about performance issues—tone, pacing, what words you stress or scumble, and what all that does to build an understanding of the character.
I’m just getting my head in to this mode, but since a recent article tripped across my social media feed reminding us that “slow reading” helps us think deeper and cultivate empathy, I started a list of things I want our slow reading to do.
Here’s the preliminary list.
Slow Reading is:

Knowing what every word means and does;
Looking at connotations in double entendres;
Understanding the context of the work;
Reading with attention to sound and visual rhyme;
Reading for musicality;
Reading for voice/persona;
Knowing your language;
Knowing your lit;
Knowing your history;
Knowing your shit.

Ok, I got a bit carried away at the end. It’s a work in progress. But it’s important, and I’ll keep thinking about it and working on it. This is how the words become a part of us. Skimming doesn’t do it. We need to read some things really deeply and let them change us. We cannot overstress the importance of the process of reading.
I’m starting to get really excited about semesters.
(The article I was referencing above is “Reading Literature Makes us Smarter and Nicer” by Annie Murphy Paul, published in Time, and available here: http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/)

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