Slow Reading

by Hanna

Trinity College Library

Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland (via)

As the leaves of book pages unfold, so too foreign worlds unfold inside a reader’s mind. A reader can travel through space and time without leaving the comfort of his living room arm chair. New experiences, new insights, and new skills become available to the careful, critical reader. And this kind of experience is the basic method of studying human experience. This basic skill when engaged in academically, is called philology, which comes from a Greek word meaning a love of words. A more recent definition of philology, as given by Roman Jakobson, is “the art of reading slowly.”

Why do so few academics use the word “philology?” The politically engaged Columbia University scholar of literary criticism Edward Said wrote in his last book, wherein he advocates philology as a humanist method and develops the idea of a philology of politics, that philology is “about the least with-it, least sexy, and most unmodern of of any of the branches of learning associated with humanism.” And considering how the humanities, the study of human experience, are less “with-it” than the natural sciences, he might as well have been saying that it is the least sexy branch of study of any of the traditional academic subjects.

I would like to disagree. Certainly, in a world that seems to be speeding up more and more as information technology grows ubiquitous and  profit is the holy grail of any endeavor, progress seems to lie with speed and productivity. But as society accelerates ever more, doesn’t it seem like we’re missing something important in daily life? Where does relaxation, nearness and care,  or reflection fit in, or must it always be scheduled into an ever tighter growing schedule?

And what about all that we’ve missed in our frantic efforts to gather information from the data streams? Are we to simply dismiss any information older than what may be found in the Internet, either because it is now inaccessible or because we think we know so much more than people did before the Internet? The probability that we have missed something important is large indeed.

The Slow Movement has addressed some issues generated by this acceleration with Slow Food, Slow Parenting, Slow Travel, and so on. It is fashionable to take time in making food with care and to share it with family or to spend a week on an Italian farm instead of seeing all the capitals of Western Europe. The focus with the Slow Movement is on promoting reflection and interpersonal relationships, thus a focus on the present and its potential. Slow reading can have the same focus.

History is only valuable in the present, when a reader finds a small element of himself in the description of historic developments. As R.W. Emerson wrote in his essay “History,”

This [manifold] human mind wrote history and this must read it. The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours.

Thus by reading, by engaging with history, a reader fosters within himself a reflection that extends to greater depth, breadth, and revelation. The only truth to be found in the past is that which resonates in the present. In order to find that truth, however, the process of slow reading must be practiced. Of course, slow reading does not come easily, because finding history within oneself necessitates facing one’s own demons in the pages of history.

To be a successful philologist, one must develop the skill of careful critical inquiry. As while reading questions arise, one must find the answers by reading and rereading or by turning to consult the context.  Engaging with the text of a book or a manuscript in this manner might then be likened to plying a craft. Fine craftsmanship produces beautiful things from common materials. So, too, fine philology produces beautiful ideas from common experiences. What could be more romantic—or sexy for that matter?


Emerson, R.W. Essays, First Series. Philadelphia: David McKay, no date.

Jakobson quote from: Pollock, Sheldon. “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World.” Critical Inquiry Summer 2009; 931-961. (via)

Said, Edward W. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

[Update 13 Feb 2013: An earlier version of this post did not include the argument that Edward Said made regarding philology.]