In college I took a non-credit speed reading course so I could read assignments faster. The idea was to move my hand or an index card down the center of the page to learn to avoid unnecessary eye movements to the left and right in order to take in larger chunks of print. Either I didn’t understand the process, or it just didn’t work. The main benefit was the illusion that I had read Moby Dick and Don Quixote, when in fact my comprehension and retention were close to zero. As a writer, I’ve learned to skim sources at a fast clip, but skimming is a finding technique that lodges little or nothing in the memory. Now with the Internet and social media, I’m looking at more words than ever, but this “skill” is just a high tech version of speed reading and skimming.
Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish, has challenged me to slow down. Smith is the editor of the Englewood Review of Books and a member of the Englewood Christian Church community in urban Indianapolis. When that congregation was faced with the temptation to move to the suburbs, it decided to stay put and work in its community. To that end, it embarked on reading as a way to discern and prepare for action. It opened a bookstore and started its online and print review to encourage other congregations to read broadly in order to act faithfully. The congregation became involved in actions that require learning– for example, economic development, alternative energy, caring for the marginalized. Smith explains, “Without learning, our action tends to be reaction . . . .”
In his chapter specifically on Slow Reading, Smith puts it in the context of other “Slow” movements: Slow Food, Slow Cities, Slow Money, Slow Parenting. He says, “What these movements have in common is not just the means of acting slowly and attentively. They also share a common end: the cultivation of local community.” Smith praises Isabel Hofmeyr’s Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading in which she describes how this practice transformed a South African community of expatriate Indians in the early twentieth century. He also draws on the history of lectio divina, the monastic practice of slowly reading, meditating, praying, and reflecting on scripture, in order to underline the power of slow reading. The final stage of this process is contemplation “in which we begin to imagine how the text is to be lived out within our everyday life.”
Smith invites congregations to read as an intentional, communal activity that is more transformative if it is done slowly–through reading for comprehension followed by conversation prompted by the questions that the text asks of readers. The process also involves “reading the world” which means reading to understand the social, economic, historic, ecological, and political dynamics that affect the area in which the congregation works, whether that be local, national, or global. Smith says “reading in communion” helps churches discern God’s work in the world, provided the reading is wide in scope—not just scripture, but books on poverty, sociology, economics, and even fiction and poetry, both of which allow us to see the world and our relationships in fresh ways.
My interest in this book stems from two longings. The first is that more congregations would see doing justice as part of their call to ministry in today’s complex and divided world. This book presents a way to understand the motivations and practicalities of that call. The second longing is more personal–to get rid of any remnants of that speed reading course that still lead me to think I’ve learned something when, in truth, I haven’t.
What books have you read slowly lately? What difference did it make?