Have you ever heard of Spritz? It’s a new way of reading, where individual words flash on a screen at a time, with one-character coloured red. It removes the near for a ‘saccade’ or the movement of your eyes across a page or a screen. Your eye doesn’t have to find the next word to make sense of. The next word appears in exactly the same place you were looking before.
There is a free demo on their website. It’s worth checking out.
Spritzing seems to promise the holy grail of the modern day: reading more in less time. You might expect that we would decry spritzing as it encourages us to hoover up more words with less time to properly ponder them. But we don’t think that at all. The Slow Movement is not about lambasting all technology, but recognising where time poverty exists. Yes, Spritz reading is about efficiency, precision or convenience, and is very suitable for certain tasks such as email, newspaper articles and in some encouraging trials, children’s schoolwork. The trick is to recognise where it is useful and where it isn’t. I wouldn’t want to Spritz my favourite books, and I certainly wouldn’t want it for academic articles I need to cite, revisit and chew over. We’re going to discuss a different strategy for academic texts. It’s called Slow Reading.
Slow reading is a long, deep and thoughtful engagement with the words you have to read. And you read every word. The goal is to truly understand what an author is arguing, where the shortfalls, assumptions and criticisms of the text you want to make. After Slow Reading, you should be able to confidently recall and critique whatever it is you just read, because you took the time to absorb it.
Slow Reading is hard work because today, distractions are ubiquitous and academic reading is harder than other texts. Fortunately, it can be made easier by a few strategies. We’re going to outline how to do it and offer some tips on how to make the most of it. The first is nothing to do with actually reading. Slow Reading takes time, and you won’t be able to slow read everything. You have to pick a text wisely.
Choosing something to slow read:
A well-read student is not a student who reads as much as they can, just as an expert sommelier is not somebody who quaffs as much wine as they can. Too much wine too fast gets you drunk, and too much rapid reading your mind and annoyingly doesn’t get you drunk. A well-read student will certainly read lots of words, but like a sommelier, they will read lots of different things, because their task is to make sure the words they read give them breadth as well as depth. Both are voracious and selective.
The wine connoisseur and the well-read student have similar skills; find a source/wine, decipher its purpose/flavour and make a judicious decision as to whether out if it is right for your current task (be it a useful reference for an essay or fine compliment to a braised lamb shank).
Let’s assume you’re browsing the Web of Science, looking for literature. You load up an article, and have two choices. How am I going to read this article, and which bits am I going to read? Let’s go through a few options, starting with the quickest, instrumental reading.
Reading the abstract.
This is what I call decision reading, or ‘ do I want/need to read this?’ As you progress through university, especially when you end up doing postgraduate study, the answer is more often than not no. There is simply too much content in the world for everything to be useful. While required readings and reading lists helpfully take some of this responsibility away from you, part of the challenge at university is shrewdly selecting appropriate and useful literature. So yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to focus on an abstract, ponder it and decide that you don’t need to read another word. That’s exactly what an abstract is designed to do.
As an aspiring academic, I’ve read a lot of stuff that is of no use to my thesis. Some has been interesting, some of it has helped me understand the field of geography, some hasn’t helped at all. So don’t slow read everything. Like the sommelier spits out the wine while the tourists get too drunk, you must move onto another abstract. Selective and Voracious.
Setting the slow reading scene.
So you’ve settled on a text. How do you actually Slow Read? First you have to create an appropriate space to read in
First, if it’s digital text, whatever medium you’re using either goes off or onto airplane mode. You close your other tabs. Close and save all other PDF’s and Word Documents. Close all other programs. If it’s in a web browser, I like to press F11 to remove the urge to click elsewhere. Your phone either goes into a different room or onto airplane mode. You turn the vibrate off, and if you must keep it with you, turn it upside down, so you can’t see the screen light up. Some people prefer apps and add-ons which block internet connectivity and certain sites, but I’m suspicious. You can’t force yourself into concentration, it has to come from a genuine desire to want to concentrate.
If you’ve got a paper text, you should get yourself a pen (and notepad if it’s a library book) for annotations. Finally, you find a reasonably quiet room and bury yourself in the single text. You can listen to music, but it must be music that won’t remove your ability to concentrate (my study playlists are exclusively instrumental).
Now this might seem obvious and trite. After all, there is nothing new about suggesting that we get distracted. But this is only part one. Slow Reading is about more than distraction. Part two is to do with how we actually read words.
Today, we don’t actually read in sentences, especially when reading on screens. We look for key words of phrases, skimming down as page as we scroll down. We infer the general message. This means that reading every-word is hard work.
Pictures and in-text hyperlinks (like the ones I used above) are easy garden paths which can distract readers. Multiple tabs and email pings will claw at your attention too. Ask yourself honestly how often you read an online newspaper article from start to finish. Confession: I got distracted by a hyperlink to a Stuart Lee opinion piece on the Guardian website when reading their piece on Slow Reading.
Eight years ago authors mused on how the interconnected nature of the web, the ability to instantly move to a different activity or text, would change how we think. And there is evidence to suggest the internet has changed our attention spans so if you’re a current undergraduate student, who won’t remember the Nokia 3210, you will find deep reading hard work, because like Spritzing, it’s a new way of approaching the task of reading.
All of this makes uninterrupted reading is hard, particularly for tech-savvy students of today, who on top of buzzing web-browsers and attention spans shorted than goldfish have to navigate dense (often poorly written) prose in their degrees. So when you finally sit down to slow read, you have an uphill struggle. Here’s how to make the best of it.
How to slow read.
Number one, you have to read every-word. Say it in your heard, mouth the words or if you won’t piss off housemates, out-loud, at least to start with. This is an active awareness of what words are entering your brain. And I promise you, it is a painful and painstaking process. It is hard work.
Number two, if you do find yourself distracted, suddenly clicking onto ‘27 reasons why...’ or ‘You won’t BELIEVE what Kim…’ the most important thing is to not punish yourself. Just notice that your off-task, and quietly close the page and continue with the text. Do this as many times as you need, because you will get distracted while try this.
The point is not to repress the urge to change tasks by checking Facebook or your phone. That is a perfectly normal part of how we read today because, as we’ve just seen, it’s how we engage with ideas. All you have to do is to simply notice when you have, and bring yourself back to the text. Gradually, over time, you’ll pick up on the urge before you find yourself doing it.
Number three, don’t do this for everything you read. Slow reading is not appropriate all the time, the same way Spritzing isn’t. It is a skill that is just as useful our ability to multi-task and absorb lots of different information is. The point is to give yourself more strategies for tackling the degree and reading you have to do. While slow reading might eventually give you a gentle appreciation for a long, drawn out session curled up with a good book, we’re talking about it as a technique.