In response to the article on slow reading, Karl Maurer sent the following citation from Nietzsche, written in 1886 near Genoa:
“Besides, we are friends of the lento, I and my book. I have not been a philologist in vain — perhaps I am one yet: a teacher of slow reading. I even come to write slowly. At present it is not only my habit, but even my taste — a perverted taste, maybe — to write nothing but what will drive to despair every one who is ‘in a hurry.’ For philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all — to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow — the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. Thus philology is now more desirable than ever before; thus it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of ‘work’: that is, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry, which is so eager to ‘get things done’ at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not so hurriedly ‘get things done.’ It teaches how to read well, that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes. My patient friends, this book appeals only to perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!”
Funny that the philosopher-poet of uncertainty, of “the raging discordance of truth and art,” of becoming and not being, of will to power, of the impulse not to stabilize and fixate and freeze the rushing torrent of time and life should be a “friend of the lento.” What Nietzsche discerns out of the hustling pace of labor and productivity and efficiency is the phony claim of fast-ness to advancement and improvement.
More isn’t better, though, and neither is quicker — not necessarily, and not in matters of the mind. But speed itself has so much momentum, Nietzsche suggests, that slow reading becomes an adversarial force. In his heated rendition, reading “slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently” is a contrarian act, not a plodding, old-fashioned bookwormish retreat.
We are in a similar situation now in higher education. Young people today process more words than ever before and in faster time — allegro, not lento. To meet them, more classrooms and more course assignments follow suit, for instance, assigning blogs instead of papers, short readings instead of long ones. The unfortunate truth is that fast reading and fast writing don’t make people more flexible, more capable of slow reading and writing when the situation demands them. We need a mix, which means that more humanities professors need to recognize slow reading and writing as a meaningful activity, one that must be preserved against the tidal wave of texting, posting, chatting, networking, and other fifth-gear practices of our time.