Blog Post

Slow Reading

In Italian, when you say someone’s email address (chris dot warley at utoronto dot ca), instead of “at” you say “chiocciola,” which means snail, because @ sort of looks like a snail.

This slight linguistic tic strikes me as having profound consequences. For the essence of email, from the start, was that it was fast. There was no longer the need to go find an envelope, find a stamp, find you didn’t have a stamp, go to the post office, anyway, you get the idea. Communication, or “conversation,” was made simple and quick and almost instantaneous. This increase in velocity has increased; almost instantaneous has become even more almost instantaneous. Email now seems too slow for many people, who prefer text messages or tweets or chat or other things I haven’t heard of to email, which is reserved for large files and official communications.

In the most reluctant of first-world countries, though, they put a snail in the middle of an email address—a snail, the dialectical antithesis upon which the thesis of internet velocity is constructed. Without slow, there is no fast. Learning how to say an email address in Italian, consequently, has helped me to figure out that one reason I really didn’t want to write this blog, one reason that I remain reluctant and skeptical about the entire operation (it’s best to be honest up front), is that blogs, like email addresses, seem perpetually caught up in a need for speed. And I’m just not a very fast guy. It takes me forever to write anything. So instead of a blog, I have decided to write a slog. And in this slog, I promise to do my best not to enter into any “conversation.” Instead, what I want to do is read very slowly—not necessarily “close read,” just slow read. If you hold on a moment, I will try to explain with the help of my pet chiocciola.

There are other reasons, of course, besides speed to dislike blogs. Rather than headlong rushes into breathlessness, blogs are actually almost always boring. When you find out what people are thinking on a regular basis—even really interesting people with good things to say in other modes—those things turn out to be not very interesting. “Wow, Flaubert is really good.” “I find parenthood frustrating.” “I wish I could have more/less sex.” “My cat/dog/son/daughter is so cute!” Life is normally very tedious. It does not need to be recorded at this level of detail. No healthy person wants to read all of Pepys.

When blogs aren’t tedious they are annoying (the two are obviously not mutually exclusive). Blogs regularly turn into rants. Solitary typing definitely lends itself to working yourself up into a real lather. That bastard! Republicans! Democrats! Environmentalists! Corporations! Oil! I like ranting as much as the next person, but I also am trying to continue to learn from Robert Venturi and Las Vegas: what happens at the desk stays at the desk.

When blogs aren’t ranting, they, like so much internet writing, seem compelled to be clever. What mysterious force interpellates cute facebook updates? Where exactly did that blog-tone come from? How is it that cleverness became reified into an aesthetic? No doubt there are a lot of reasons for the blog-tone, but surely part of it emerges from the idea of cultural criticism generally, the belief that a certain ironic detachment frees you from the Twitter juggernaut. As in so many things involving cultural criticism, a diagnosis comes from Adorno. This is from the beginning of “Cultural Criticism and Society”: “The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent. He speaks as if he represented either unadulterated nature or a higher historical stage. Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior.” I’m not sure that “fancies” is the right word to describe the cutesy irony of Facebook posts; maybe Adorno’s analysis needs a little updating. I will think more about this quote in a future post. It is a hard passage, in no small part because how Adorno differentiates himself from other “cultural critics” is very tricky.

There are nevertheless blogs that I read regularly, and they tend to fall into two clear camps with the sort of structural consistency that would make Northrop Frye very happy. The first sort are information blogs that have a very obvious topic or that lend themselves to specific circles of gossip: Paul Krugman on the revenge of JM Keynes, or Peter King’s MMQB in Sports Illustrated (ok, that is a column, not a blog, but it’s close enough, and he now tweets), or David Pogue on why electronic gadgets are like musicals, or the blogs that people put up as they are redoing their houses in Brooklyn.

The Renovation blog, though, quickly turns into Blog Archetype Number Two: obsessions. I like hearing (I prefer not to consider why) about someone thinking, endlessly, minutely, nervously, about what brand of toilet to buy. Or http://bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com . Or Julie Powell’s blog when she was working her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2003/01/02.html (which is now a movie—the secret dream of all obsessive bloggers: to be rewritten by Nora Ephron). These blogs are good because the people who write them put a terrifying amount of work into writing them. They almost aren’t “blogs” really. They’re art. Reading these blogs is sort of like a Victorian serial version of Erroll Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

But I do not have a specific piece of information I can update people on (news flash! Renaissance literary criticism has not changed very much! Update: on the 436th reading, I still do not entirely understand what Marx means by use value). And if I have an obsession, it is definitely not writing a blog—it is probably the book I am currently writing about class in Renaissance literature (ask me! I’ll tell you about at great length, but not on this blog). And books should certainly not be blogs. Books should be edited, thought through, and done as slowly as possible. Books that are written quickly are usually disappointing—British academics with cv’s to fill, I’m talking to you.

Which brings me to the real reason, the primary reason, that I don’t really like blogs, or rather, the reason I really don’t like the idea of me writing a blog: it reminds me of the Variorum edition of Donne’s poetry. The Donne Variorum (it’s an on-going project published by Indiana University Press) lists hundreds of years of commentary on Donne’s poems. And, having learned the lesson of Stanley Fish’s critique of the Milton variorum, the editors do not try to impose any order on that commentary by implying that some is good and some is bad, some aligns this way and some aligns that way. In a review of the volume on The Anniversaries, R. Speed Hill, no fan of differance, but a pretty cool observer just the same, remarked that “as a consequence of its uncritical character, the Variorum commentary testifies eloquently, if inadvertently, to a fundamental uncertainty, not only as to just what a given poem or figure or poetic element might mean, but also as to just what it is we are doing when we read and interpret such a text...reading nearly four hundred years of commentary on this poem [the Anniversaries] in its many elements is indeed to glance over the edge of a critical abime” (Huntington Library Quarterly 62.3 & 4, 453). What is needed in response to the vast amount of information collected in the Donne Variorum is not yet another commentary to add to the long list. Imagine the Donne Variorum online, continually updated, endlessly, by bloggers around the globe. It’s terrifying. Blogs take the problem with the Donne variorum and add speed: let us update it faster with even more material! Now of course the Donne Variorum might prove to be a very useful tool that could tell you a lot about poetry in the seventeenth century and ever since: if you took the time to work slowly through it. If you don’t, you not only don’t contribute to understanding Donne, or understanding just “The Flea,” or understanding why anyone might want to understand those things; instead, you actually spin meaning not into the play of differance but into total meaninglessness, in ahistory, like Fredric Jameson wandering around the Bonaventure Hotel. The Variorum becomes tyrannically meaningless, not democratically possible. And that is what happens with blogs.

The snail in an email address, though, is the antithesis of “blogging” as I understand it. So I have decided that I am not going to write a blog. I am going to write a slog. A slog is slow. It may be painful. Though I am sure someone else has already thought of the pun on blog (actually, I didn’t think of it myself: my friend Kat suggested it to me), here is what I mean by slog. “Slog” stands for slow-reading-blog. I do not want to write a blog that is quick, that participates in an on-going conversation. I don’t like the “conversation” metaphor that gets used so often to describe blogs and general internet “chat,” because one of the things I like about writing over talking is there is no conversation. Reading Plato is better than listening to Socrates. When you are reading, you just have to shut up and pay attention for a while, and that attention, in turn, hopefully forces writers to try to be as clear as possible, that is, forces them to figure what exactly they think before they publish, not as they are talking, if for no other reason than they don’t necessarily have another chance to keep on blathering. Conversations don’t work like that (you really can’t keep up with Socrates; you can keep up with Derrida), and to the extent that blogs are conversations, they don’t either. They are both too fast. In my professional life I rarely have conversations with people about hard-core intellectual matters, because reading and thinking about something as complicated as, say, Adorno or Donne demands a speed—very, very, very slow—that is not amenable to dialogue or conversation. Even in the class room, the best moments tend not to be moments of conversation but moments when everyone (including me) realizes what they really need to do is go home and reread “Cultural Criticism and Society” or “The Flea” because we have all realized that those works are even more subtle and complex and interesting than they seemed at first. What happens instead is people write papers and exchange them and then go read them at home, alone. I suppose you could call that exchange a “conversation,” but I don’t think it is, really. It is better than a conversation, because it is slower. Blogs shouldn’t be conversations. They should be writing.

There is, as Bourdieu never tired pointing out, little in the way of content that an English professor who specializes in Renaissance literature and Critical Theory has to offer the world (literature offers cultural capital, not cultural content). I too sometimes think my knowledge of Edmund Spenser ought to license my opinions on public policy (especially since Spenser seems to have thought his understanding of Virgil made him an expert on politics in Ireland). But honestly—sorry, Barrack, I don’t really know anything about Iraq or the auto industry or supreme court nominations or health care. Yet there is something worthwhile in studying poems and theory and reading whatever else slowly. The thing that English professors are good at (or should be good at; must stop rant now) is working patiently through texts, teasing out meanings, and contemplating the implications of various possibilities without necessarily coming to any definitive conclusion (without necessarily coming to any definitive conclusions: conclusions are possible, just rare). As a result, I am not in the business of making decisions. But the very fact that much of what English professors do has almost no impact on the world at all is one of the things that is good and interesting and worthwhile and socially significant about reading things slowly. Most people can’t read slowly. They have jobs and lives and decisions to make. English professors can read slowly, and I guess I am saying English professors should read slowly, because we have a lot of free time on our hands and we rarely ever have to make any decisions at all (unless you are renovating a house and have to put in a toilet. I recommend Toto).

Usually this effort at teasing out meanings is called “close reading.” But that is a phrase that I am hesitant to use here, in part for largely dull academic-politics reasons having to do with fights about “historicism” and “formalism.” But “close reading” seems in particular the wrong name to describe what could happen in a blog. Close reading is a phrase tied, inextricably, to a different era, from the 1930s through the 1980s. It names not just a reading practice but a culture. And while the difference between now and then can be greatly exaggerated (things are not necessarily all that different from 1934, at least if you listen to Paul Krugman), the very existence of blogs is an indication that something is definitely changing, even if it hasn’t quite changed all that much. Close reading is a slow activity and in that sense it is the exact opposite of a blog, which is supposed to be spontaneous and occasional. Thoughtful, sure, but not too thoughtful—then it wouldn’t be a blog, right? It would be a book, or at least an article.

So I need a new term to describe how, exactly, you could do close reading in a blog. And I decided to steal from a food movement that started in Italy and that has gradually (slowly?) spread around the world. Slow Food gets its name as the antonym of “fast food”—that is why even in Italian you say “slow food,” not “cibo lento” or something, though Italians always do that adorable thing of stressing the final consonant (sloW fooD) since they really wish there were a vowel at the end of the word. Slow food is a political movement: they have guide books and a manifesto and everything. And like any political movement, much of it is very stupid. People in the slow food movement fetishize authenticity (local, traditional, hand made, organic), and their hatred of industrialized food production is often naive nostalgia (truly authentic pre-industrial food production would mean periodic starvation. There is a reason gluttony was a sin. In Italy or Berkeley it is easy to celebrate the local ingredient. Try living in Ontario, where the only local ingredient available for seven months of the year is the color gray). Nevertheless, if you’ve ever traveled to Italy, you know that seeing the “Slow Food” symbol is usually a good thing, because it usually (not always) means the food will be pretty good, that someone will have thought about how to make it and where it comes from and will not necessarily be worried about cooking it super fast just to keep customers happy in order to maximize the rate of profit. Slow food isn’t always good, though it usually is, but it is nearly always slow. And that ups the odds.

And the symbol of Slow Food? The chiocciola: the snail that also sits in the middle of all Italian email addresses. Surely this connection should count as something like fate in a virtual world. If an English professor has anything to contribute to this information revolution, to the vast digital flows of capital and facts and pedantry and posturing and opinionating, it ought to be the ability to make and tease out bad multilingual puns, that is to say, my boundless capacity to take forever to write anything. And so my goal in this slog will be to slow read.

Christopher Warley's picture
Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.