The Bituminous Time It Takes to Rebegin ⏳

The obvious pattern here is that I write Earth Wide Moth entries on breaks. This time it’s Wednesday of spring break, the middle of a week in the middle of a semester—that temporal middlemost divot for a slouch and an exhale and a say.

I was thinking of bitumin because ever since I learned of the (by now well-known?) Queensland U/Professor Parnell pitch drop experiments, bitumin comes up as a terrific example of patience and the taffy-pulled reward of studying for many years things slow, old, and transforming though inobservably so. I’m no geologist, but this solid-seeming bitumin fascinates because even while it is friable, or ready to crumble, so too is it viscous. Given time enough, it forms and relinquishes droplets to gravity. Bitumen drips, if you leave it alone. Wait for it. Wait.

This spring break, like so many other breaks I’ve shoe-horned in and amidst WPAing responsibilities over the past five years at VT, has meant once again driving 500 miles from SW Virginia to Michigan, jeans and sweatshirts shoved into a luggage, watching the weather along the route so as to avoid freezing rains or patches of snow, fetching groceries, and upon arrival generally going along with the anything-whatever of granddaughter time, Is.’s club volleyball schedule, and then some. The practice, if it can be called a practice, is to be easy with it all. Equanimity-crafted lifestyle. And this time of year, there are thesis and dissertation chapters to read and comment upon (two on Monday, two more on Tuesday), continuing teaching prep and some comments on the short-form writing we’re practicing in Food Writing, a boomeranged second-time-around review task due next Tuesday and too long put off across the accelerated and travelsome and also cough-hacking throes of February. Yeah, sure, it’s work, but I experience it as slowed down during the break. Meanwhile, the email inbox has quieted. This week it has lessened to a trickle of reply-all-good job-all-well done-all congratulations among faculty colleagues and a few one-offs about the latest surveillant impulses and precise questions people have about AI-screened computing activities disguised in the protective father logics of cybersecurity, like if robotic dogs chased aggressively a twenty-first century suspicious hermeneut. If you can imagine these as blue-skied comforts, it’s some kind of time at some kind of beach or the like.

Warming up again to the ms review is next on today’s to-dos. I first read the manuscript and wrote 914 words of reviewish guidance ten months ago, May 2022. And because those ten months since have proven to be the most locally extreme and austere in what is now a decade of WPAing, I find it’s requiring more concerted effort to prioritize and focus upon this routine work, to muster a bituminous rebeginning and to return to the manuscript so I can read every bit as generously as before. At sloth’s pace, it stably holds together; quickened, it crumbles and fragments: I get it.

Time Enough for Slow Reading

Reports like this make me fidget. An appeal to the slow toward “meaning and pleasure” strikes me as less a call for “slow reading” as an idyllic, life-of-the-mind practice and more as a call for “slow[er] reading [than you do when you must hurry].” While I understand the urge to foster thicker, more patient relationships between readers and whatever they read, the “slow reading revolution” seems to me to frame of texts by default according to a filter-first logic, an already-filtered logic. The aim is not revolution, really, but involution by temporal variation, by changing speeds. According to Clay Shirky’s discussion of filtering and publishing in Here Comes Everybody and elsewhere, filter-then-publish aligns with broadcast and with editorial gate-keeping, screening that happens before publication. When user-generated content comes along, on the other hand, these events are reversed.  Publishing happens first, filtering after. For readers, then, the trouble with the web is that both varieties of content slosh around together (an indistinguishable stew): streams are not already separated into cooked content (i.e., filter-then-publish) or raw content (i.e., publish-then-filter). Filtering is crucial in a digital age not only because we need it to survive experientially this growing delta of user-generated content but because the already-filtered is drifting in its midst. These conditions require of online readers a heightened “filtering imperative” all the way up.  And yet my first, admittedly glancing, impression is that “slow reading” assumes filtering to be unproblematic or already settled–a given. Filtering is not exactly reading, right?, but filtering is pre-reading–a flitting relationship that, I would argue, cannot be as slow-probative-sluggish as slow reading advocates would like. Steven Johnson, in his introduction to The Best Technology Writing of 2009, differentiates the slow-fast as “skim and plunge,” allowing for nimble readers who can change speeds as skillfully as Kobe Bryant setting up a blow-by step. Slow reading advocates would appear more concerned more with plunge than with skim. Beyond “slow reading,” I am interested in filtering and in making these skim/plunge changes of speed explicit with students.

I don’t want to mischaracterize the slow reading movement. Nor do I want to seem disparaging or unfair in writing through, as I have done briefly here, a few of my impressions: viz., I have a book on my night stand that I have been reading at a pace of two pages a week for almost three years. Snails, that’s slow. Sometimes I skip a week. Or two. Even slower then. I wish I could quit the book, but there is no hurry. Such a dragged out reading as with this book is like watching a nature program in which a tortoise flips sand over its freshly laid eggs. Flip. Flip. Flip. Or the episode with a sloth reaching for that one succulent cecropia leaf still a meter beyond its lethargic reach. It just seems to me it’s possible to teach a “closer connection” or some deeper involvement with texts via read-alouds and memorization than by invoking a superficial opposition to the assumed-to-be-frenetic character of “reading” online.