sunday life: why you should read slowly

Posted on August 22nd, 2010

This week I learn The Art of Slow Reading

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I’ve never been a big reader. Even as a kid. Which has always surprised people who assume that just because you wore glasses with an eyepatch for 18 months (when I was 12) and spent lunch in the library means you were a bookworm. Truth be known, I only ever got as far as Double Love in the Sweet Valley High series.  Which I suppose doesn’t really say much in either direction.

As a kid, if Mum caught us reading it was code we weren’t doing much and she’d hand us a basket of nappies to hang on the line. A resting heartbeat in a child would get her antenna up and she’d swoop in with a bundle of kindling to start the fire. So we stayed outside. And avoided the brown questions in Trivial Pursuit.

That was my excuse then. Now, like everyone else it would seem, I blame the internet. Recently much noise has been made by many angry experts claiming the internet is making us stupid because it forces us to read too fast, skimming tidbits at the expense of absorbing nourishing knowledge. In his new book The Shallows, tech guru Nicholas Carr uses neuroplasticity theories to argue this hyperactive toggling is reshaping the pathways in our brains, rendering us incapable of absorbing complex insights and arguments. Let alone follow a family tree in a Tolstoy novel.

Which means the more we toggle the more we toggle. Academics with 100,000-word dissertations that no one can read anymore have also joined in, bellowing “The Death of Knowledge” from their lecterns.

All of which – before I lose you – has given rise to the Slow Reading movement, which is the new Slow Food movement, following in the languid steps of the Slow Travel movement. There’s a book. And blogs. And clubs. It’s a movement.

Of course, slow reading isn’t about reading words at a snail’s pace with a ruler. According to proponents, it’s about reading fully, not just the executive summary, or the reviews in the weekend newspaper literary supplements (a tip I took from an edited extract I read of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read). And allowing time for dissecting arguments and reflective response. It’s also about reading real books, not content online (which leaves you open to online distractions…and so happens to threaten academics with 100,000-word dissertations in tow).

But how ‘bout we get to the crux. Slow reading isn’t about stemming the tide of our dumbing down. It’s about stemming the tide of life. We fast-read because we’re inundated with information. And – more importantly – haven’t developed a way to sort wheat from chaff. We have to frantically skim everything to see what’s worth reading. Which leaves no energy to read fully. We’re like little frenzied Dutch people running around plugging dykes before we drown in data… who are starting to realize plugging ain’t the solution. The solution might just be to let the floods in and build a tranquil retreat on stilts above it all.

Me, I’ve been slow reading a lot lately, and for the first time in my life. Not to bulk out my synapses, but to stake out a retreat. More and more I’m appreciating the secret to meaningful survival today is to vigilantly carve out placid little pockets of calm for ourselves. If we don’t, we drown. It’s up to us. No one else can do it for us. If you’re like me, this can involve relearning some old, very obvious tricks, like the Very Fine Art of Sitting on the Couch on a Saturday Afternoon with a Pot of Tea and a Good Book.

To Slow Read I find you need to read one book at a time. And to concertedly set aside time. Two hours is good. Or 45 minutes every night. Some Slow Readers recommend computer applications like Freedom, that turn off online connections for a carved out period of time (we’re that weak). Having time and space to stare off into the ether, unrushed, to reflect and develop a creative response, feels great. It takes that long to pacify my parasympathetic nervous system. Which, I decide, is the entire point of reading a book on a couch on a Saturday afternoon. It’s the retreat on stilts that gives me the energy to re-enter the data fray.

It doesn’t matter what you read, nor the pace, really. It should probably be called Still Reading. Or Bring Yourself Down From The Ceiling Reading. As John Miedema, the author of Slow Reading (the book) says, it’s “about bringing more of the person to bear on the book.”

From my experience. it’s about bringing more of the person to bear on life.

Do you read fully? And slowly?

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  • ss

    so true. I’m guilty as ever with this but I really enjoy reading real books when I do. Thanks for this piece. I actually read the whole thing through!

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  • Paul

    Great points Sarah. I find my reading ‘depth’ depends on the book category moreso than time available. With work titles I’m always speeding through them very fast as I always have many and just want the succinct points.

    However with books I want to savour and enjoy (all my non-work books) it’s much more a slower pace. Yet I do catch myself often starting off too fast and having to remind the brain it’s OK to Slow Read.

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  • Oh my – you’ve done it again. This is me! It seems every week I read your sunday life piece and I totally relate. Im a speed reader. Sometimes I feel like there is so much information, I buzz around on the net like a wasp on fanta. I don’t know where to stop! I want to stop, but I can’t. Reading for me is often about work, so it becomes a chore. I find myself doing it quickly so I can get it over and done with.

    So this is it. Im going to slow read. It takes 3 weeks to make a habit right? Im going to add this to my list of making a habit. So far more teeth brushing & more water have been successful. Im motivated to add this also!

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  • OMG! You’ve nailed it again!!!
    I’ve always felt guilty for being a slow reader. And every since I’ve heard of speed reading, I’ve become OBSESSED by it, to the point of opening a book and not enjoying it anymore. But recently I’ve decided to step up and be nice to myself.
    SO GLAD that this movement actually exists 🙂
    Kisses from Brazil

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  • As “SS” stated, I actually read this article all the way through. Inspired, am taking the time to have creative reflection. This article hits at an interesting time. I am sitting at a table (am actually babysitting but the kids are asleep), studying for my GRE’s the Verbal section. A tip that Princeton Review gave was “read, read, read”. I was an avid reader in my teens, but now in my 20’s I have a shelf full of highly recommended half read books, and the narcoleptic-esque problem of passing out whenever I have 20 minutes of inactivity from doing the 20-something game of discovering myself while doing everything that interests me while trying to be a productive successful adult at the same time… Yada yada =) this article inspired me to MAKE THE TIME to read, not only for graduate school sake, but for my sanity’s sake and hey, my future children vocabulary’s sake.

    Great reminder!
    Back to studying!

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  • Greg

    Thank you Sarah for this timely reminder to slow read. The trouble is that part of our brain just loves digital technology…..all that fast reading, browsing, scanning, linking, blogging and twittering. Traveling the information superhighway is like speeding along a ‘real’ motorway with no speed restrictions, sometimes taking the exit to another motorway and then another and so on without even having to slow down except to grab some fast food.Then it’s back on the motorway. The trap is this: We all know that If you went on a holiday to Britain for example without leaving a motorway except to take a link to other motorways and read about the towns fleeting by in your glovebox copy of Frommer’s ‘Quick Guide to Britain’, you will never experience the ‘real’ Britain, the villages, the quaint pubs, the stately homes, the people. Now with high speed broadband (and better motorway coverage!) we can get you there even quicker….but get you where?…. Yes, if you’re on a business trip or need to get somewhere quickly fast broadband and motorways are both great inventions. But to really live our life we need to take that exit to the little village with the teahouse occasionally…. and even get out of the car and take a stroll to the riverbank and put our feet in the water. Now there’s a nice thought!

    “Readability’ is a wonderful tool for focusing on what you are reading online 🙂
    Find it here and simply add it to your bookmarks toolbar:

    http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/

    Greg

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  • Connie

    Sarah,

    You are my GIRL!

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  • Greg

    http://mnmlist.com/undistracted-reading/ provides more suggestions on how to minimise the distractions that get in the way of understanding what we read onlline 🙂
    Greg

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  • Am I a slow reader? Nope & to prove it I read your intro jumped to the end, cam eback and scanned the middle all within 10 secs or less. I start a book, jump to the last page and then go back and read all the bits in between. I can read book 3 times and always make a new discovery. This is why I found returning to postgraduate in a an area that was foreign to me very tricky as it required focus, concentration and an understanding from begginning to end ….I was reading with a notepad and pencil beside meensuring I moved through the content slowly.

    I agree with one book at a time my 6 old is loving her reading at the moment and is reading a couple of books at once (I am encouraging her to focus on one at a time so she can really immerse herself in it and allow the characters and story to seep into her world ……

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  • I just read Greg’s comment – I heard an interesting story about a maps (the paperones that fold out) have continued to sell despite the GPS systems cars have & how people were saying it is the end of the maps ……because when you are travelling people want to explore, duck down the side roads and stop at the villages and not motor on by……shared themes with slowing reading I do beleive.

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  • xq

    i like your website style,and i’am going to give my attention……
    sorry,my English words is limited but i am trying to express ……en….i am a chinese
    good luck!

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  • Greg

    Being a non reader of books (you know…the old paper ones) I joined a local library book club with the express purpose of forcing myself to front up every month and face public humiliation if I hadn’t read the ‘book of the month’. It was hard…really.. really hard. And it still is! I mean why am I here on Sarah’s blog instead of reading ‘the Running Man” by Michael Gerard Bauer? The first month of ‘book club’ I got a third of the way through the chosen book( a weird murder mystery about sheep detectives-get my drift?), the second month’s book was good but I only read a few chapters. I secretly returned the book and slipped out before book club meeting started. What a coward !! I have but one week to finish ‘the Running Man’ and man will I be running to finish it!

    I just get tired of reading after 15 minutes and doze off or lose concentration.
    Reading….I mean REAL concentrated reading is a big effort for us scanners.
    But when I do manage to sit down and read a REAL PAPER BOOK the rest of the world stops for me. It becomes my ‘ feet in the water’ time :)…just like meditation….and that’s another story!
    Greg

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  • I confess to skimming this blog post 😉

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  • Stephanie

    This is very interesting. I do academic research for a living, but not in an academic setting. Therefore, I am subject to “urgent” additional requests all of the time. I realized about a year ago that as a result I was never getting through my stack of reading, but rather hopping through it and half-reading. It was also happening in my personal reading life. So lately I’ve been doing exactly the same thing as you describe – carving out time at work in which I refuse to answer emails; reading every night before bed and sitting on the sofa on Saturdays (I did that yesterday, too, and in fact I took a book into a long, slow, hot bath (bad for the book, but great for the soul :)). Who knew that there was a movement! I had heard some experts talking about the influence of the Internet on our levels of concentration though. Great article, as always!

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  • tine

    I… I wasn’t really aware that reading too fast was an issue. Maybe it’s because I’m from a book loving family, and instead of being told to go do something “productive” when found reading, it was more likely that one of my parents would be asking what we thought of the book and give us recommendations for a book to read after that. It’s only natural for me to carve a few hours out of my day to quietly sit and read, usually outside or in a quiet nook somewhere. Somewhere with my computer off and my phone forgotten about in my pocket.

    I’ve apparently been a member my entire life and didn’t even know it. 🙂

    Now online reading is a totally different story; one that I feel is completely justified. Not to be a poop or anything, but the majority of blogs or online articles boil down to maybe a line or two of real content and the rest is just filler or the blogger’s opinions or writing style. Even if I did take the same “turn off all distractions” approach I do when reading novels, I’m not going to get anymore out of it then if I just fast read the post.

    Lovely article, but it kills my book loving soul a touch to hear that it was an issue in the first place.

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  • As a writer, this post has sent me into a mild panic. C’mon people – screen reading? Or settling into a comfy armchair or, better still, bed, with a book, freshly bought or borrowed – or even stolen, if you have to. That wonderful heaviness in your hands. The smell of the paper. If the book’s secondhand or a library book, the wondering who else has read it before you and what they’ve thought. If the book is new, that feeling of being an explorer. Reading on those unbearably hot summer nights until three in the morning because the book was too good to put down – Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers, Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. More recently, Hilary Mantel’s ambitious Wolf Hall and Robin Hobbs’ wonderful Farseer fantasy trilogy, not to mention David Almond…

    Clearly I was a inaugural member of the Slow Reading movement – back waaay before it was a movement.

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  • Mia

    I too was part of the movement before it was a movement. I was always painting, drawing or reading (especially reading) as a kid – I was a bit of a nerd and always encouraged to do something productive instead of watch tv. I also dated a business mangement student who spent a lot of time conversing with me about marketing tactics and how people will believe anything and I was determined not to be one of those people!

    As such I have developed a healthy skepticism of most technological fads (give me one good reason why I need an iPhone? What the hell is Twitter and why do I care what Kanye West thinks? What does an iPad actually do apart from pollute the planet and fund civil wars in underdeveloped nations that supply the raw materials??? And so on)

    I guess Im just kind of old fashioned, and see books as “real” and artistical, while I see the internet as mostly opinions and blogs, and something not entirely trustworthy.

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  • Dayle

    Wonderful column Sarah.
    Reading for me partly went away once I subscribed to pay TV> Too many movies, documentaries, sports etc.
    But on Sunday afternoon after reding your column , iI sat down with a coffee and got stuck into a book that I Have been reading on and off for weeks.
    Well done again Sarah. You plant so many good and positive thoughts into my brain.

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  • Judith

    A lovely (fiction) book that also touches on this subject is “First among sequels” by Jasper Fforde, the 5th installment of his Thursday Next series, wich touches on the subject of “the short now”.

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  • Missamoo

    HA!!!! i am avenged!!!! i used to stay up ALL night as a 12 yr old reading my books, i had to put a towel under my door so that my mum thought i was asleep. Even now if i get interrupted while i’m reading i get super cranky, reading is my time. And so i say to my family who or years told me “it’s not a library” because i hate being talked to when i clearly have my head in a book. I was slow reading the while time!!! yay for me and now i am off to read Android Karenina!!

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  • mike

    I know that speed reading is a great help when you have to cover mass quantities of material in a short period of time. But sometimes I like to sit back and read my paperback books slowly and savoy the moments.

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  • educational grants

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

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  • Wow, that looks so seemly!Dialect mayhap you give birth to changed your point not too extensive ago? Mainly because I could have sworn it was not the just the same the previous time I was here…unless I am pensive of a bizarre trap site.

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