Is it best to take your time with books that are difficult to read? There are reading groups around the world devoting decades to one.
It’s our first meeting back at Avid for the year next week. Hope to see you all there. At the last meeting we actually finished the third chapter. We’re now well into the second page of chapter four: page 76. Dizzying speed.’
Each month, the notice for an upcoming Finnegans Wake reading group arrives in my inbox. The group, which meets at Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop and Café, is one of dozens spread from Australia, to the United States, to Switzerland. Rather than a concerted network, however, they largely became aware of each other only after starting: the Sydney group, for instance, began in 2004, whereas Brisbane has only been reading since 2013.
The sessions at Avid are open to anyone and, despite the organiser, Tony Thwaites, being a literary academic and a Joyce scholar, many attendees – pastor, merchant seaman, medical doctor, to name a few – have little more qualification than an affinity for language and literature in general. And the input is certainly not one-sided.
For anyone who has read, or at least attempted to read, Joyce’s radically experimental opus, the irony in the email may not seem all that ironic. The Wake – an abbreviation used, it seems to me, to emphasis the event of it all – is 656 pages of obfuscation; it contains puns in some 70 languages, it coins phrases, invents words and meanders in and out of comprehensibility. It is a book you can spend a lifetime reading without having a firm grasp on, but for those inclined towards dark humour and absurdity it is also a wonderfully complex practical joke. And, despite a good deal of negative reception on its publication in 1939, Finnegans Wake has earned a place in the literary canon as a work of inscrutable brilliance (or perhaps brilliant madness).
Its obscurity stokes readers’ curiosity and unites them in their efforts to decode it. Not that this effect is all that unique: books unite people the world over in their appreciation of them. But the complexity of a book such as Finnegans Wake invites more sophisticated readings, and reading it together, discussing and unravelling its meaning in concert with others, allows for a simultaneous diversity of interpretations, and fosters a greater social intimacy by turning the act into a shared labour.
The terrifically slow pace of the Wake group – two to three pages a night, and projected to finish in 2039 – might not be for everyone, but there is something in it that speaks much more broadly to the concerns of a modern, accelerating society.
Intentional slow reading is not a new phenomenon. In a line from the preface to the 1887 edition of Daybreak, often cited as the origin of the term ‘slow reading’, Friedrich Nietzsche defines himself in light of the practice: ‘It is not for nothing I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading.’
In 1962, critic and Harvard English professor Reuben Brower wrote ‘Reading in Slow Motion’, an essay that discussed his approach to encouraging better reading habits in his students through ‘a method that might be described as “slow motion”, by slowing down the process to observe what is happening, in order to attend very closely to the words, the uses, and their meanings’.
Slow reading is much the same as the close reading taught to present-day university literature students, without the constraints – particularly the desire for a ‘complete’ and systematic reading – potentially associated with the institution.
The benefits of slow reading have been increasingly commented on in more recent years – with regards to our engagement with a work of literature, but also in relation to our attention spans, our capacity as social and moral beings, and even our health. It is now widely thought of as an arm of the slow movement, a term popularised by Carl Honoré’s 2004 book, In Praise of Slowness.
The movement was famously given flesh in 1986 with the emergence of grassroots organisation Slow Food, whose focus on more traditional and local food consumption and agricultural practices was intended to counter the ethos embodied in a growing fast-food culture. Since the success of In Praise of Slowness, people have adopted the values of the slow movement into a wide range of practices, from sex, to film, to science.
[Finnegans Wake] is a book you can spend a lifetime reading without having a firm grasp on.
Slow reading – the deep engagement and relaxed pace we bring to our most enjoyable reading experiences – has re-emerged into more mainstream discussion as a tonic for the perceived surge in everyday life’s pace and the reduced ability to focus associated with digital technology and social media.
There is a surface paradox in this: if we are lacking in time, how could something that intentionally takes more time to achieve less provide a counter? Quite obviously, the number of hours in a day hasn’t changed, but the number of things we feel necessary to fit into those hours seems to have greatly increased with digitisation: efficiency and accessibility have created a fear of missing out that equates living with quantity. Perhaps unconsciously, slow reading (and other slow activities) helps to restore an appreciation of how much space our hours actually contain by doing away with clutter and negating that fear.
On the Thursday following a reminder email, the Wake group will find itself at Avid Reader. It generally consists of a core group of six (sometimes bolstered by the more casual members).
We pour glasses of wine and chat, until Tony brings us to order: ‘So last week we finished chapter three and had a good go at starting four.’
‘We definitely had a go,’ Matthew quips.
‘Yeah, it might pay to go back to the start of chapter four,’ Tony agrees. ‘There were quite a few clauses buried in clauses within clauses on that first page.’
‘Who wants to start?’
Over the course of the two-hour meeting, each of us takes a turn to read a paragraph or two out loud, which is then laboured over until we’re all out of ideas and can move on.
My turn comes around:
…might mercy to providential benevolence’s who hates prudencies’ astuteness, unfold into the first of a distinguished dynasty of his posteriors, blackfaced connemaras not of the fold but elder children of his household, his most besetting of ideas (pace his twolve predamanant passions) being the formation, as in more favoured climes, where the Meadow of Honey is guestfriendly and the Mountain of Joy receives, of a truly criminal substratum, Ham’s cribcracking yeggs, thereby at last eliminating from all classes and masses with directly derivative decasualisation: sigarius (sic!) vindicat urbes terrorum (sicker!): and so, to mark a bank taal she arter, the obedience of the citizens elp the ealth of the ole.
We sit quietly for a moment, re-reading. Refer to Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans Wake. Wait for gaps in the cloud.
‘Blackfaced connemaras. They’re a type of sheep, aren’t they?’ Mogens asks.
It’s more of a rhetorical question, something to get us going.
‘Lots of them in Ireland,’ Matthew says.
‘So he wants to be the shepherd to a flock not of regular sheep, but those of his own bloodline,’ Sheila adds. ‘Perhaps “fold” is in reference to Irish society at the time, those who have damned HCE with their rumours.’
‘Yes, and “a truly criminal substratum”,’ Dan continues the train of thought. ‘A gang of his children – perhaps a reaction to being on trial.’
‘Oh look! There’s HCE again in “Ham’s cribcracking yeggs”, if you take out the “y”.’
HCE, the main character, and his wife, ALP, are mostly identified through such dispersed initialisms – and simply noticing one is its own reward.
I wonder out loud: ‘The “y” could be turning eggs, with the X chromosome, into sons, with the Y chromosome. Would that have been something known at the time?’
Mogens nods, ‘Yes, it certainly would have.’
‘That last bit is a play on the motto of Dublin,’ Tony says.
‘McHugh has it: “Obedientia civium urbis felicitas”. Citizen’s obedience is city’s happiness.’
‘So his own gang of obedient sons would do the world some good.’
‘Hahaha, how marvellous!’
This is an appropriated version of the format we follow for the whole two hours – revelling in a pun unearthed, a hidden motif recognised, a character identified; making jokes, sharing silences, sharing wine.
The method of reading itself is an example of what Reuben Brower calls ‘reading as active amusement, a game demanding the highest alertness and the finest degree of sensibility’. This he distinguishes from ‘reading as anodyne’, ‘reading as extended daydream’ and ‘reading as pursuit of fact’: ‘I say “amusement”, not “pleasure”, to stress the play of the mind, the play of the whole being, that reading of this sort calls for.’
How successfully we – or at least I – employ the highest alertness and the finest degree of sensibility is certainly debatable, but there is a distinct sense of play in these monthly meetings.
And playing together is quite different from playing alone.
In 2014, a Slow Reading Club began in Wellington, New Zealand. It provides ‘a weekly social for busy people to schedule an hour of quiet reading. It is normally in a private-ish space in a bar or cafe’.
The club’s founder, Meg Williams, had become aware of the significant lapse in her reading habits, and soon discovered the concept of slow reading. She was inspired by the many reported benefits of slowing down her practice.
‘So I started reading again – and it was great,’ she reports on the club’s blog. ‘But I always think that things are more fun when you share them with others.’
This lovely initiative adds a social intimacy to something that is inherently solitary. No doubt it sounds pointless to some: why introduce potential distraction into an activity that requires quiet and focus? But have you ever read for leisure in a quiet space with another person, particularly someone you know or are close to? There is something nice about it, some added dimension that contributes nothing to your interpretation of a text but something ineffable to the experience as a whole.
This being said, there is a sense in which the Slow Reading Club could be a manifestation of the ‘alone together’ phenomenon of the present day: the desire to be heard or seen, with the strict borders of our individuality and personal space intact.
In her 2012 TED talk, cultural analyst Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), recognises that ‘people can’t get enough of each other; if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control.’
If the Slow Reading Club is akin to sharing a meal, then the Wake group feels like everyone is taking part in the cooking.
This need for control, combined with the need to be seen and heard, has come to dominate our activities and interactions. The need to have an opinion, and to seize every chance to express it (while keeping audiences and opponents at a distance), reflects the compulsion that technology has generated to cram ourselves into every facet of experience, and as many experiences – physical or virtual – as possible into every moment.
An interesting element of these reading groups is the enhanced focus on the activity itself, as it occurs in ‘real time’. Where the Slow Reading Club dedicates an hour to reading, with more general chat (assuming everyone is reading different books) limited to afterwards – rather like sharing a meal, in that the participants, being physically present, can stay around and chat once the reading is done – the Wake group slows the act down even further by interspersing it with a relevant and continually evolving conversation.
Turkle claims that as technology assumes an ever greater role in our lives we increasingly ‘sacrifice conversation for mere connection’. As she recalls of her research, ‘When I ask people, “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” people say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation: It takes place in real time, and you can’t control what you’re going to say.”’
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Wake reading group is the lack of preconception it entails. There is no homework, no reading ahead to give you a chance to form an opinion. Nothing to stress over, other than what presents itself at the time. More importantly, there is seemingly no end to what can be lifted from the words in the book, and so it’s difficult to claim any one interpretation as absolute. We bring the breadth of our combined knowledge to bear on Joyce’s text, but it’s not the knowledge of a specialised group.
Arguably, Joyce’s tricky text could be just as fruitfully approached by what Virginia Woolf calls the ‘common reader’:
He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.
Despite Woolf’s use of the word ‘pleasure’, there are definite echoes of this in Brower’s ‘reading as active amusement’ – in fact, in reading Finnegans Wake you get the distinct impression that Joyce was pulling one over on traditional literature, and that the joke points to what we all have in common, as common readers.
‘And when everything was got up for the purpose he put an applegate on the place by no means as some pretext a bedstead in loo thereof to keep out donkeys…’
‘Now, what’s an applegate?’ Matthew asks.
‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ Tony replies. ‘What does McHugh say?’
It’s reassuring when we refer to the famously ‘essential’ guide, a line-by-line annotation of Finnegans Wake, only to discover white space at the source of our confusion. It has a great levelling effect, and increases the sense of the book as a shared labour, of something worked on as a collective that becomes more than perhaps intended on its own.
If the Slow Reading Club is akin to sharing a meal, then the Wake reading group feels like everyone is taking part in the cooking.
This kind of communality has been left wanting by the reduction of institutional presence in our lives. In a recent essay for Griffith Review, University of Sydney academic Tamson Pietsch reflects on the altered nature of the institutions of work, family and religion that dominated the first half of the 20th century. In many respects, the overhaul and dismantling of these and other institutions is part of social progress; however, as Pietsch observes, ‘institutions hold us in time and they connect us to each other’.
In their absence, society becomes increasingly fragmented and individualised, fostering alienation amid the endless noise of connectedness – leaving us alone together. As social beings we have a need to bring our private lives into the public sphere; it’s what social media is all about.
Perhaps the growing number of book clubs in Australia – a favourite being the Tough Guy Book Club, which ‘is like a fight club for your mind…a modern meeting place for guys of all walks of life to get together and discuss not just the work of literary greats but any and all of the issues that men tackle on a daily basis’ – is in response to a growing awareness of the way we ‘short-change ourselves’, as Sherry Turkle puts it, in substituting genuine interaction with mere connection.
Of course, none of this is to suggest we do away with technology. But if we want to counter its potential to accelerate and dehumanise our experience, it is important to recognise that time doesn’t ‘speed up’ independently of the way we spend it. As sociologist Judy Wajcman says in a recent Aeon article, technology ‘never simply speeds things up, in part because technology is not something separate from us…Rather, technology makes possible what we do, and affects how we think about time.’
And we can think about time in many ways.
Reading groups, and reading in general, are often perceived as a luxury – but perception is key. The Wake group is two hours a night, once a month. And how many times in a month do I spend 120 minutes doing effectively nothing, without thinking it luxurious?
Yet I’m also not suggesting that the group’s methods are somehow superior, or that, in order to feel less stressed and more connected, everyone should rush out and join a Finnegans Wake reading group. As Tony said to me when I joined, ‘There is a certain air of futility about the whole thing.’ (And, reflecting on people who had left the group after just one meeting, ‘Can you blame anyone for not wanting to read Finnegans Wake?’)
But I think this is part of the point. It’s an example of an activity done for its own sake, rather than as a point-scoring exercise. And perhaps most importantly, it creates the space to interact on a level that precedes the noise, the ego, and subsequently the anxiety and fear of missing out that a connected and quantified life can generate.
At the end of chapter three, HCE is lying down drunk after an eventful evening:
Words weigh no more to him than raindrips to Rethfernhim. Which we all like. Rain. When we sleep. Drops. But wait until our sleeping. Drain. Sdops.
‘So he’s lying there, and drifting off. His thoughts start to synch up with the dripping rain,’ Mogens says.
The torrent of language that makes up the preceding pages is reduced to a steady drip as HCE falls asleep.
‘Seems a fitting place to end, with half a blank page,’ Dan observes.
‘Yes, and after “Sdops” – done, asleep.’
‘And McHugh has “sdops” as an abbreviation of the Italian sdoppiare, which he translates as an uncoupling or opening out,’ Tony says. ‘That’s an interesting term, “uncoupling” – like he’s disentangling himself from himself. What a wonderful metaphor.’
The hours, quietly unfolding in their own time, pass nevertheless. The store empties, along with our wineglasses. We pack our books away, and make our way out onto the street, lingering for a moment before going separate ways – a slow recoupling to the night.
My thanks to Tony Thwaites, senior lecturer of literature at UQ, and Michelle Boulous Walker, senior lecturer of philosophy at UQ and author of the forthcoming work Slow Philosophy: Reading and the Institution (Bloomsbury, 2016), for the discussions that helped shape this piece.