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Slow reading: The best way to make reading fun again.

June 21, 2010

Ever notice how an idea seldom gets traction until someone slaps it with a snappy name? Take “slow reading,” — formerly known as “immersive reading,” “close reading, “deep reading,” or just plain “reading,” it’s been around since Gilgamesh was a boy.

But now, thanks to the ever hastening pace of modern life, it’s a movement.

The Associated Press reports that Thomas Newkirk, an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, is the latest educator to tout the so-called “slow reading movement” as a way to help students improve their comprehension, concentration and, oh, by the way, pleasure.

Newkirk, who apparently knows how to give good sound bite, says today’s students approach reading the way they do burgers and fries in a fast-food restaurant.

“One student told me even when he was reading a regular book, he’d come to a word and it would almost act like a hyper link. It would just send his mind off to some other thing,” Newkirk said. “I think they recognize they’re missing out on something.”

But Newkirk doesn’t lay all the blame on the Internet and digital media, which strongly encourages fast and superficial reading.

“You see schools where reading is turned into a race, you see kids on the stopwatch to see how many words they can read in a minute,” he said. “That tells students a story about what reading is. It tells students to be fast is to be good.”

But in my experience it’s not just students who could benefit by slow reading. Indeed, the idea of intentionally slowing down as a way to increase comprehension, concentration and pleasure has no meaning until something has encouraged us, frog-in-the-boiling-pot style, to gradually speed our reading.

And I want to emphasize the pleasure part of this equation. As a professional book critic and lifelong reader, I’ve always argued for what might be called the “hedonistic principle of reading:” The only reason to read books is for the immense and unique pleasure of it all. Reading is fun.

Newkirk isn’t the only advocate of slow reading, nor the first. In his 1994 book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, literary critic Sven Birkerts used the term “deep reading,” and predicted digital media would destroy it. (In an irony almost too rich to be borne, The Gutenberg Elegies is now available at Google Books).

In 2004, Canadian journalist Carl Honore published In Praise of Slowness, a manifesto against speed in life, industry and culture that includes slow reading. Lindsay Waters, executive humanities editor at Harvard University Press, identifies “a worldwide reading crisis.”

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words,” Waters wrote in a 2007 article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

John Miedema is both an IT architect for IBM and the author of Slow Reading, published last year. He’s a thoughtful commentator on the intersection between the traditional values of slow reading and the usefulness of digital technology (check out his blog).

“It’s not just about students reading as slowly as possible,” he said. “To me, slow reading is about bringing more of the person to bear on the book.”

And to me it’s about bringing more of the book –its rhythm, its story, its subtexts, both intentional and serendipitous –to bear on the person. That can only happen if I read slowly, giving myself over to a book.

Fast reading has its place — at work, on the Internet (get off as soon as you can!), sometimes with newspapers and magazines. But a book deserves your full attention, and you deserve the fruits that can only ripen when you give it.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    June 21, 2010 12:41 pm

    I read not much faster than read-aloud speed and that’s a liability in some settings. But in reading for pleasure, a snail’s pace is OK. ‘Slow but not necessarily stupid’ is my next t-shirt caption.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 22, 2010 12:01 am

      Also, my recall is better the slower I read.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 21, 2010 1:02 pm

    Found myself speeding through your blog faster than Jimmy Johnson on a NASCAR Sunday. Because of the subject matter, I re-read at the pace of a grandmother on a Sunday afternoon joy ride. It was much better the second time. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 22, 2010 12:01 am

      Glad to be of service, NASCAR gal.

  3. John Karwacki permalink
    June 21, 2010 1:16 pm

    I love this concept, but lack the time to implement it. I just burned through a book of interviews from Rolling Stone, before that Maryse Conde’s “Who Slashed Celenaire’s Throat”, before that Catherine Fisher’s “Darkhenge” and on and on the parade goes. Between all these I find time to peruse newspapers, magazines, self help, meditation, exercise and recovery books. One of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 46:10 – look it up if you find the time. I distinctly remember wishing I had not finished “Gatsby” so quickly. I wanted to go back and savor each sentence, alas it was too late. Rereading is a joy, but not the same joy as a slow read. I have had the same experience with a couple other books. Can you name yours?
    Truth is I find most everything in life more enjoyable when I slow down and savor the process. I have come to love meditation, simply shutting down the machinations and being quiet. What a concept! Most things take on a deeper meaning when concentrated upon: reading, conversation, sex. The excuse for hurry is always fear; I need to perform for work, I need to finish to commence the next project, I need to hurry or someone else will win.
    The opposite problem is procrastination which I fall into, especially when writing. I rationalize by calling it contemplation but the truth is closer to sloth. It is easier to watch a rerun of “Law and Order” than to put pen to paper. So it goes, thanks for another thought provoking blog which forces me to inventory my shortcomings and reach for another book. Yeah, thanks a lot Chauncey Mabe. One last quote – “Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.” Shakespeare. I know how you love the old bard.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 22, 2010 12:06 am

      John – While I always say the only reason to read is for pleasure, like many other pleasures it is good for you if done right. So I am happy to contribute to your continuing quest for self improvement.

  4. Connie permalink
    June 21, 2010 1:20 pm

    Slow reading? No can do.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 22, 2010 12:04 am

      Yeah, but you’re Superwoman. You don’t count

  5. rachel permalink
    June 21, 2010 4:39 pm

    I find that I read stuff on the internet much faster than print on paper. Which I think is interesting. I have always been a slow reader. I think. I mean, I just read. But I do remember going to college and being shocked that other people were skimming their homework and therefore had time to partake in activities besides reading. I love reading. I love gobbling up books, and I love that they completely shape my life, put it in context, for the duration of my reading them. I get sad sometimes when I have finished a book, okay I get sad anytime I finish a really good book, and wish that I had read it slower. But I think that for me when reading books fast equates time devoted to reading rather than speed, meaning when I am really into a book I’ll read it any spare moment I get and therefore will finish it faster than if I had not.

    I agree with John Karwacki, I find that I most enjoy anything in life when I slow down. In fact I find that I feel most alive when I am standing still and the world is whirling all around me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 22, 2010 12:04 am

      We can do the best we can. I skim or speed-read magazines, newspapers and especially the Internet, but books I’d rather savor slowly. Or not at all.

  6. Kris Montee permalink
    June 22, 2010 10:02 am

    You just made me understand why I don’t seem to read for pleasure unless I am on vacation. Without the white noise of daily life, I can concentrate enough to slow down and savor books. Increasingly, our vacations are to places with no TV or internet access, so my brain must be trying to tell me something important.

    Thank you. Now I won’t be consumed with guilt for not reading more and will be content to simply get more out of whatever I am enjoying. To quote Balanchine: “Slower is faster.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 22, 2010 11:11 am

      “Slower is faster” — I like that. It’s manifestly true, just like “less is more,” or as Izak Dinesen (a writer best read slowly) said, “Half a cake is better than a whole one.”

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        June 22, 2010 11:33 am

        Did Dinesen say that before or after she contracted syphilis? Because that sounds like the ravings of a mad woman.

  7. Deja permalink
    December 3, 2011 2:50 pm

    Hi i’m a VERY slow reader. I get embarrassed when i get too a word I don’t know cause not only am i reading slow I’m now stuck on a word I should know but forgot cause I’m so worried about reading fast????

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