In Praise of the Slow Read
A friend recently lent me a book, and three pages in, I realized that the author tackled momentous topics with concrete analysis and brilliant language. So I closed the book and returned it.
I didn’t abandon the book because I didn’t want to read it, but because I wanted to slow read it. I wanted to pore over it for months, scribbling questions and mini-essays into its margins, dog-earing its pages, and letting tears crinkle the paper under its most insightful paragraphs.
I knew my friend wouldn’t want his book returned to him sometime next winter looking like the Dead Sea Scrolls, so I returned his copy and bought my own.
Recent studies show that the desire and ability to undertake a slow, thorough reading are rapidly going the way of the dodo. Rather than reading books at length and thinking deeply, we erratically sample our knowledge morsels from a vast array of fast-food factoid buffets. For the sake of connectivity, we sacrifice our capacities to reflect and synthesize these facts into a coherent bigger picture.
But, even in the throes of this information revolution, you can learn the necessary and rewarding craft of slow reading.
Slow Reading = Writing
Reading is a complex activity consisting of “a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading,” Mortimer Adler says in the critically acclaimed How to Read a Book.
Adler says slow reading is “a more active kind of reading than you have done before, entailing not only more varied activity but also much more skill in the performance of the various acts required. … It is a major exertion.”
Great focus and effort is required to ingest a book in such a way that will allow your gray matter to absorb its subject matter. This exertion takes more than reading. It takes writing.
A person cannot truly own a book—intellectually or spiritually—until he has marked it up. This means underlining impressive sentences, writing important page numbers inside of front covers, and jotting notes into margins. The practice of marking up books ensures that the reader is not just passively reading, but instead swimming around in the text, collaborating with it and interacting with its author.
Seasoned slow readers will develop personalized systems of circles, asterisks, lines and so on to mark intra- and extratextual references. Some of the margins of their favorite books may be filled with full-blown essays—sideways, diagonal and upside-down. Several of my books are essentially destroyed by the sheer logorrheic power of my enthusiasm for (or disagreement with) their content.
But where the pages are battered, the memories are sturdy.
New York Times magazine critic Sam Anderson is an avid practitioner of “marginalia,” marking up a text. “Today I rarely read anything—book, magazine, newspaper—without a writing instrument in hand,” he said. “Books have become my journals, my critical notebooks, my creative outlets. … [M]arginalia is—no exaggeration—possibly the most pleasurable thing I do on a daily basis.”
This slow, focused reading is pleasurable because it is effective.
The Nuts and Bolts of a Slow Read
Slow reading is not just feverishly spraying graffiti on a book’s pages. The process varies, but there are some tried and true methods that every serious reader should use.
Adler says the first of these is discovering and stating the unity, theme or main point of the whole book in a single sentence—or a few sentences, if necessary. A reader cannot settle for a mere feeling of this unity. He must nail it down, definitively and concisely. There is only one sure way to know if you’ve succeeded in this: Write it down.
In some cases, the author may have already completed this first step in the book’s title. For example, a fairly complete self-description lies in the title of F. Kaid Benfield’s Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl Is Undermining America’s Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric. In non-fiction books, the theme may also be spelled out in a preface or introduction. A wise reader is neither too proud to consider the author’s help if he offers it, nor so naive as to blindly accept every book as being exactly what the author claims it is.
In most cases—especially with fiction—the reader will have to construct the unity sentence from scratch by reading the text itself. After my second reading of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I wrote this in my copy: “The story of three generations of the Trask and Hamilton families, exploring the theme of good versus evil, and relying heavily on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck ascribes great significance to his translation of the Hebrew word timshel (‘thou mayest’) in the Cain/Abel account, arguing that it proves that human beings have free will, and can choose to do good or evil.”
For most books, this unity sentence will be quite difficult to create, and may be possible only after wading deep into the text, or even finishing it completely (unless outside sources are consulted). The inside of a book’s front cover is a suitable place to write it, but realize you may need room to expand or otherwise modify it as you become better acquainted with the book.
The Skeleton Beneath the Skin and Muscle
The next rule of slow reading is to draw up an outline of the text. Creating an outline is tedious business, but it provides the slow reader with a quick reference and helps to ensure that he has followed the author’s thread from beginning to end.
I find the inside of a book’s back cover to be a suitable place to sketch the outline. Some readers prefer to use a separate notebook or sheet of paper.
An effective reader, according to Adler, will take the time to define and write out the problem(s) the author is addressing. After completing the book, the reader must determine which of these he solved and which he didn’t. Then the reader should note which of the unsolved problems the author knew he failed to solve.
Adler spends several chapters encouraging readers to avoid contentiousness, and to be informed and fair in criticism of books. “You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty ‘I understand,’ before you can say any one of the following things: ‘I agree,’ ‘I disagree,’ or ‘I suspend judgment,’” he says. “You can be just as wrong in agreeing as in disagreeing. To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.”
Slow reading means devoting yourself earnestly to books, stopping to look up any word or reference you don’t understand. It means consulting helps and commentaries, and writing down your questions, thoughts and reactions.
A slow reader’s goal is not to finish a text as quickly as possible, but to understand it as fully as possible. A book or article that a reader tackles following these slow-reading guidelines has the potential to influence that reader deeply.
Life Is Too Short to Read Good Books
But we are finite beings with serious constraints on our schedules, and the slow-read process requires time and effort. So you must cautiously determine which texts are worth your precious slow-reading time.
In this information age, a staggering amount of reading material is available. In fact, even before Twitter, the Internet or even the printing press came along, King Solomon wrote, “Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.”
In The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet offers this sage advice: “Don’t read good books—life is too short for that—only read the best. … If you want to be vitalized into the power of thinking real thoughts resolutely leave out whatever is not of the best …. Those 20 or 30 volumes will be your library, that is to say, your fountain of thought, your delight.”
Dimnet understood that human beings possess limited learning capacities. He knew that to read through a meaty book only once, especially quickly, does little for our long-term education. So he said we should slow read only the very best books, and that we should not be afraid to read these gems over and over again.
That’s not to say that other materials should be avoided, but only that we must differentiate between texts we read for our information, and those we read for our formation. As English statesman Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Try it. Shut out the distractions, settle in, pick up a great book—and do some chewing and digesting. Savor the slow read.