What Can We Steal From Jessica Love’s “Reading Fast and Slow”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Reading Fast and Slow,” nonfiction
Author: Jessica Love (on Twitter @loveonlanguage)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece made its debut in the Spring 2012 issue of The American Scholar, one of the great magazines that you should be reading.  As of this writing, Ms. Love’s piece is available online.

Bonuses:  Ms. Love is a blogger for The American Scholar.  You can check out her “Psycho Babble” column here.  Ms. Love teamed with Abby Walker to write a paper for Language and Speech.  If you have strong database searching skills and access, you can find the article here.  If you don’t know how to find things in databases, ask your local librarian and he or she will be overjoyed to help you make your way to knowledge.  Jenny Cheshire has written a bit of commentary on the paper that may help those of us who wasted our lives by not getting a doctorate in linguistics.  (I’m being serious, of course.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Openings

Discussion:
Ms. Love confronts a very important issue in this article: how we read.  More importantly, she offers advice as to how we should read.  Through the course of the article, she discusses the Slow Reading movement and how the Internet has changed the way we absorb information from what we read.  Sure; skimming can give us the basics of an author’s story or a writer’s argument.  Reading at a gallop or at a trot, however, runs counter to the simple mechanics of how our brains work.  These Internet-friendly methods of “reading” prevent us from engaging a piece on the comprehensive level it may deserve.  (I’m proud to say that I remembered Falstaff’s first name; he’s “Sir John,” of course.)

Look how Ms. Love opens her piece.  She does something that I…well, I was going to say, “love.”  I deeply admire when a nonfiction writer constructs an essay in this manner.  A lesser writer may have begin with some blah blah blah about cognition or brain structure or something.  Instead, Ms. Love begins her essay with an interesting anecdote that immerses us in her subject: “In 1986, an Italian journalist named Carlo Petrini became so outraged by the sight of a fast-food restaurant near Rome’s Spanish Steps that he ended up spawning a movement.”  She goes on to describe the Slow Food movement and how the concept spread to other facets of human endeavor.  Other writers may have begun the piece with one of the paragraphs that occurs later in the piece.  What does she gain from beginning in this way?

  1. People love stories.  After reading about Mr. Petrini, we are naturally inclined to care about the gentleman’s ideas because we’ve heard a little bit of his story.
  2. This neurological stuff can be pretty dry.  The opening anecdote invites us to overcome our fears.  Ms. Love is not going to bore us; she’s just communicating complicated ideas in a simple fashion.
  3. Ms. Love situates the Slow Reading movement in the current state of our information environment.  Today, we can do an Internet search for “what is the theme of the lottery by shirley jackson” and get the information WE THINK our teacher wants.  In the past, analyzing a work required much more effort.  You had to ask a friend or read Cliffs Notes or…read the story.
  4. Ms. Love compares reading to eating, uniting these most satisfying of human necessities.

Ms. Love did not originate this structure.  Look what happens if I take a look at the most recent issue of The New Yorker:

  • Here‘s a review of a new biography of Carl Van Vechten.  See how Kelefa Sanneh begins the article in the same way as Ms. Love’s article?
  • Here‘s a Sasha Frere-Jones profile of Beck.  The same kind of opening.
  • Here‘s Rebecca Mead’s profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson.  The same kind of opening.

Ms. Love, who happens to be a great friend to creative writers and to cool people in general, offers us a trick we can use to manipulate our readers:

Difficulty slows readers down, and awkward wording is about as difficult as it gets…  Once a passage begarnishes itself with odd or obsolete usages and syntactic constructions, we have to work harder to make the text coherent enough for us to move on. Even the most difficult words and constructions get easier with repeated exposure, however. Just as we can, over time, become accustomed to our bartender’s thick Irish brogue, we can adjust to difficult texts by changing our expectations about what we’ll encounter. The first time we read a sentence likeThe boy handed the candy bar drew a picture, it seems odd. But after reading a sentence like The boy driven to school drew a picture, the original isn’t quite as hard to get. Ordinarily, we’d assume that the boy had handed the candy bar to someone else. But because driven clues us in to the sentence’s reduced relative clause (in which the who was is dropped from The boy who was driven), we are able to interpret handed in the correct way. We have, in short, learned how to parse the sentence.

Most of the time, our goal as writers is to produce very clear prose for the reader. What’s the problem with that?  As the article points out, readers may become too relaxed and may begin to gallop over your sentences instead of savoring them.  You surely understand the concept.  How long does it take you to read a Dan Brown novel?  Not long; it’s a straightforward adventure made up of fairly straightforward sentences.  How long does it take you to read James Joyce?  The syntax of Mr. Joyce’s sentences can often be odd, forcing us to actually pay attention to the work.

Some of our scenes and some of our poetic lines should be very, very clear.  Most of them, in fact.  There are, however, times when it’s a good idea to throw up a “roadblock” or two.  Look at suspense writing.  I’m always fascinated how writers depict a first-person narrator being sucker punched or struck without warning.  The narrative SHOULD be a little “unclear” in these places; the narrator isn’t clear as to what is going on, either.

Made-Up Example 1: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out.  Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care.  I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke when a man sneaks up behind me and hits me with a billy club.  I fall down and lose consciousness for a moment.

Made-Up Example 2: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out.  Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care.  I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke.

That’s when the lug who’s been tailing be cracks me in the skull.

It hurts, but only in the second before I pass out.

Made-Up Example 3: I was walking down the street thinking of the dame who had just thrown me out.  Some people don’t understand the threat they’re facing; women like her just don’t care.  I pinch a nickel in my pocket to buy a Coke–

–CRACK–

I hear my skull fracture with the blow.  Bread?  Why do I smell bread?

Example 1 is very clear, but that may not be appropriate; the poor guy just got clocked in the head.  By example 3, I have made the prose harder to understand.  Doing so may knock the reader out of a rut that may have been comforting on the rest of the unwritten page, but is inappropriate when something crucial occurs.

What Should We Steal?

  • Immerse your reader in a subject that may be complicated or unfamiliar.  Sure, you may be starting a massive discussion about astrophysics and all of that, but our complicated universe is best introduced with a story and the assurance that you’re relaxing into the soft and warm grasp of a strong storyteller.

  • Craft sentences that are harder to understand when appropriate.  Friend, you’re the boss of the page.  Slow your reader down if you feel the need or if it will create a helpful effect in your work.

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