Saturday, January 31, 2015

Slow reading

MY 75-year-old mother was in tears. She closed the Jonathan Kellerman novel, “Blood Test,” sighing “nindot gyud kaayo ni nga libro, day (this is such a good book)”.

I picked up reading from my parents. Newspapers, magazines, comic books, “komiks,” novels, bible—I cannot remember when reading didn’t take place at home. It was the only thing that bugged us about having only one toilet; just when one had to go, someone was always flipping pages inside. “Just one more (chapter), okay?”

When Mama came to live with us, I confirmed that old habits die hard indeed. Even with bifocals, my mother spends less than a week to finish a 500-page novel. Her typical day is packed: she takes her meals and diabetes medication; she watches her favorite TV shows; she walks to the phone and calls to ask about her 96-year-old mother.

But when a book grabs hold of Mama, she doesn’t let go. I don’t even have to look up from my writing to check out the bent white head, only listen to the rustle of paper.

Ma and I read books and catch up with news the old-fashioned way: we cling to paper. The disappearance of newsboys and their armload of newspapers saddens us. And while I’ve given in and started compiling an e-library that will not take up costly space when I travel, I will take only a paper book to bed. Aside from being hefty and cumbersome, tablets don’t go well with a flashlight which, I believe, is a must for stories read until the wee hours.

Anyone can be forgiven for thinking “slow reading” is an odd phrase to apply to this habit of gobbling paperbacks. Yet, that is the exact name given to the movement that “seeks a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans,” reported “The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)” last Sept. 16, 2014.

Slow reading parties in the United States have one thing in common with the Slow Reading Club in Wellington, New Zealand: for an hour or so, folks switch off their phones, settle down in a chair, and read a book in silence. The WSJ reported that some digital natives use e-readers and tablets but switch off the wifi or put their gadgets on airplane mode to pause the flood of emails and online distractions.

But for hard-liners, only an old-fashioned book made of paper will do as a cure for this digital tragedy: being unable to finish reading a book.

Researchers established that screens change the way we read: from a linear, left-to-right movement that aided comprehension to the F-shaped scanning that takes in the top line of text but halts midway for the next lines in a downward rush to go to the bottom, which, say academics, is good for getting the gist without deeply understanding the text.

Throw in links and multimedia presentations, and you have today’s phenomenon of people carrying hundreds of e-books without finishing one or a dozen.

The same WSJ article also cited other studies showing how reading slowed down memory loss in the elderly; and how literary fiction makes readers understand other people better, crucial for relationships. Slow readers cite other benefits: concentrating more and reducing stress.

So when Ma wept because her novel had ended, I did the only possible thing: picked up the copy and cracked the spine myself.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s February 1, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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