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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksApril 6, 2023

Slow Reading for Slow Thinking: The case for reading for pleasure, and everything else

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Claire Mabey investigates why she’s been feeling so nostalgic for Sustained Silent Reading – and how the thinking behind that activity intersects with our online lives, the school curriculum, politics and funding for libraries and the arts.

In 2014 Wellingtonian Meg Williams started The Slow Reading Club. Every week a bunch of strangers met at a scheduled time at Library Bar, each with our books in our hands and phones in our bags, and sat together reading and sipping on beverages. After an hour we’d put down the books and chat. It was scarily novel, and it was bliss. And the idea grew rapidly into a “movement” that was reported in international news and spurred on a swath of Slow Reading Clubs worldwide. It was like Sustained Silent Reading but for adults whose inner peace was being eroded by the rapidly encroaching place of algorithmically designed, fast-paced digital platforms in our work and social lives.

Nearly 10 years on, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about slow reading again. Since I’ve never successfully unzipped myself from social media, which I know is impacting the way I think and behave; since the grotesque and deliberate misreadings of Tusiata Avia’s poem in right-wing media and politics; since Auckland mayor Wayne Brown’s attempts at cost-cutting by going after libraries, community services and the arts; since National announced part of an education policy that looks a lot like a return to National Standards which, for many teachers, is a tired, defunct methodology that we only just (it feels) managed to rid the system of.

All of these things feel connected on some subterranean, ideological level: for so many of us, our thoughts are intricately and breathtakingly online, mediated via for-profit social media platforms that dose us up on dopamine and promote fast, brief “social” interactions. In that realm there is little room for pause, debate, narrative or sustained intellectual pleasure. By contrast, art, and environments that hold and nurture art (e.g. libraries), are (often) offline, focussed, and value slow, considered thinking. 

Slow reading, and slow art, promotes slow thinking – and study after study is showing that human brains need this not only for the edification of our minds, but for our spirits too.

An image of a woman reading with her legs crossed and the Slow Reading Club logo above her.
Imagery from The Slow Reading Club started in 2014 by Meg Williams. (Photo: Pauline Leveque)

Over the last two years it has been with interest and optimism that I’ve encountered the idea of reading for pleasure in communications regarding both libraries and the school curriculum. In 2022 Te Mātaiaho: The refreshed New Zealand Curriculum was published as a proposal document for consultation. In the proposal the section on English now includes the following:

Te pānui hei whakangahau, hei whakapārekareka | Reading for pleasure
Reading for pleasure involves ākonga choosing a variety of texts (featuring, but not limited to, written language) based on their own preferences and interests.

Within this framework, reading for pleasure is a key action under the “Do” section of the curriculum at every year level from Years 1-13. The inclusion of reading for pleasure is a concept arrived at via studies conducted by both Aotearoa researchers and international scholars alike.

In February this year, The Conversation published an article called Learning to read for pleasure is a serious matter – NZ schools should embrace a new curriculum, by education researchers Dr John Milne, Celeste Harrington, Jayne Jackson, and Ruth Boyask. The thrust of the article is to put forward research that strongly “challenges the view that reading for pleasure is a pastime for quiet, passive individuals sitting alone. Reading for pleasure is an inherently social activity.”

One of the studies referenced in the article is this report commissioned by the National Library of New Zealand as part of its Communities of Readers initiative. The report includes an in-depth analysis of a trial at Huntly College which attempted to value reading for pleasure right up front with this vision statement: “Huntly College is associated with reading; leaders are readers”; and this mission statement: “Working together to support staff and the student leaders to promote and inspire Huntly College students to read for pleasure and wellbeing.”

The implementation strategy started in 2020 and included, “activities with staff and students at Huntly College, including sharing reading texts, professional development for teachers on reading for pleasure, and school trips to the National Library in Auckland, Auckland Museum and Auckland Writers’ Festival. The activity was focused on the school community, and the programme is planned to end in July 2021 with a Festival of Stories organised by the school that is to extend into the Huntly community.”

The main insights that came out of the trial were:

  • “Through the school leadership and National Library personnel the Communities of Readers project at Huntly College has generated new experiences for students and staff and has contributed to new narratives about reading within the school.
  • Student research associates at Huntly College have identified two areas that may have implications for future pedagogical development at the school: that the importance students attribute to reading is higher than their teachers believe, and the breadth and diversity of students’ out-of-school and pleasure reading activities may be a platform for future growth.”

Both articles expand on the idea of reading as primarily a social activity by outlining that children who read for pleasure are more likely to engage in other interest-based activities and are less likely to passively consume media online. The Conversation article finishes by urging teachers not to privilege skills over pleasure in their teaching styles and expands on this by saying: “It’s important, too, that the explicit inclusion of reading for pleasure doesn’t become a missed opportunity. This happened in the UK, where teaching did not change to match a curriculum that included reading for pleasure.”

Screenshot from the Huntly College website where they really value their library.

The other thing that has happened concurrently in the UK is the steady decimation of libraries. This study titled “Palaces for the People: Mapping Public Libraries’ Capacity for Social Connection and Inclusion” includes an explanation for this by Aotearoa-based professor of library and information management, Anne Goulding: “In the United Kingdom, the library system has been decimated partially under the guise of libraries becoming community managed. Goulding acknowledges that “at the core of the apparently irresistible tide of community managed libraries lies a drive for austerity and the localism rhetoric has become a convenient smokescreen for local councils for withdrawal from public library service delivery.” 

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it Wayne.

School librarian and the second ever (after the first, Ben Brown) Te Awhi Rito New Zealand Reading Ambassador, Alan Dingley, told us that in a perfect world he’d love to see “libraries combined or housed in community spaces alongside public spaces such as museums, theatres, Citizens Advice Bureau, mental health services and more. A centre for access to information sharing and gathering, that is open and accessible to all.”

Dingley thinks that in Aotearoa we need to normalise reading for pleasure, given the benefits: “Reading, particularly for pleasure, has so many positives. Increased vocabulary, imaginative thinking, well-being benefits, and so many more. It’s an escape from reality, or the chance to imagine a new one that you can see yourself in.”

Of course, to me, a lifelong reader, this is all logical as hell. Perhaps even more so as over the past few, increasingly online years, I have often struggled to extract my brain from social media and its maelstrom of fast-thoughts long enough to feel the full and glorious effects of offline art. Because while the focus at the moment is on reading for pleasure, I’d argue that the same logic applies to art at large: reading for pleasure, theatre for pleasure, painting for pleasure, ceramics for pleasure, singing for pleasure, dancing for pleasure, storytelling for pleasure. These things should be central to daily life and not on the fringes.

This is not to assume that for many people art is not present, because art-making is of course central to a multiplicity of cultures. But there is evidence (we haven’t even started on the decline in humanities enrolments at the tertiary level) that for many of us, our lives don’t include enough time to value or enjoy slower thinking, longer narratives, immersion in a variety of ideas, perspectives and forms of story. 

So, it’s been with a pained kind of nostalgia that the Auckland mayor’s tiring, imaginationless attack on libraries and arts funding drove me to dwell on how much I missed Central Library Wellington and Slow Reading Club, and how grateful I now am that I was forced to engage in Sustained Silent Reading at high school in the 90s. When I was 15 and suffering hugely in chemistry class (what is a mole though?!) the occasional announcement that the lesson was going to be replaced by Sustained Silent Reading was met with unmitigated relief and joy. Of course not everyone was into it, nor should they have been — learning styles vary hugely, a fact that teachers across the country well understand (one of the reasons why National Standards is troublesome). But the principle of it remains: build time in the day for slow thought, pleasurable distraction, engagement and/or escape. 

I’d love to see slow art clubs, slow thinking practices, built into the adult worlds as much as it is throughout the education system: if our workplaces promoted and enabled art for pleasure, imagine the outcome? Happier people, enriched thinking, exposure to the benefits of imagination which is so desperately needed among leadership at this time of broad calamity. Maybe we’d even see an increased understanding of the immeasurable value of professional artists and why they need to be paid, and properly, to deliver their services to us all. 

Surely the outcome, as the studies show, of normalising this kind of daily dose of slow can only be a good thing. I hope, come election time, we’ll have options to choose a leadership that understands the value of reading, of art, and those people and places that make and hold them for us.

Keep going!