The Slow Read

by Guest Blogger July 11, 2013

by Hannah VanderHart

When do you find time to read?!” I’ve been asked by other parents. “Naptime and before bed,” I reply. These are understandably difficult hours for stay-at-home parents to give up. Naptime alone is precious. In the naptime hour you can load the dishwasher or work out, uninterrupted. Take a shower. Eat lunch. This is a common list of desires.

So I went a step further last week: I scheduled a sitter for Tuesday morning and went to a coffee shop near my house with a single book in tow. I was dressed in total optimism: I was going to get loads of reading accomplished. The book was Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. It’s not an easy read even when my toddler and dog are happily snoozing, but I thought an amazing cup of coffee and an adult atmosphere would radically change how much I read.

Two hours into my reading: I had read twenty pages. That’s six minutes a page. In those two hours I had used the bathroom once. I had turned off my phone and Twitter. I concentrated to the extent that when I left the coffee shop I had read my way into a migraine. Where was this Reading Paradise I promised myself? With a growing sense of depression, I calculated 515 pages at this pace. Nope, it didn’t bear thinking of. Clearly I had a problem, and problems (I told myself) are fixable.

That night I sat in bed, self-diagnosing my reading issues with the aid of the internets (everyone cringe: now). I searched terms like “slow reading problem” and “reading rate issues.” You know, really brilliant stuff. My search turned up some interesting links, including a PDF published by the University of Central Florida that addressed five problem areas common among students: 1) poor concentration, 2) underdeveloped vocabulary, 3) poor reading techniques, 4) lack of textbook reading techniques, and 5) what the PDF termed “blank mind syndrome.” The PDF had some interesting ideas, such as clearing one’s visual space to aid concentration, writing an “x” in the margin every time you catch yourself daydreaming, and keeping a piece of paper nearby as a “worry list” when thoughts entered your mind. Practical notions.

And then there was the reading rate chart, which diagrammed suggested reading rates for different types of reading material. Like scanning dictionaries for information retrieval (1500 words per minute), or skimming newspapers for general topics and issues (1000 wpm). And at the bottom, most interesting to me: Analytical and Critical reading, a category of reading encompassing

Detailed textbooks in math, science, poetry, love letters; material to be studied intensively or read aloud such as drama, philosophy, religion; any material that requires or stimulates deep thinking.

(At this point I should add how much I enjoy love letters being on par with religious texts.)

The purpose of this Analytical and Critical reading is to

Evaluate and/or reflect on content, to follow directions as in performing a chemistry experiment, extract precise meanings, read aloud, reading intimate material, reading for emotional stimulation.

The average reading speed for such texts: less than 250 words per minute.

The more I think about slow reading, the more I realize Kant’s dictum to treat people not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves, applies to most books I care to read. The poems and the essays, the giant philosophy texts or exquisitely detailed novels of writers like Tolstoy, Wharton, or D.H. Lawrence. The heavy, beautiful, mind-encapturing, world-view altering texts. We read slowly in part because we care about the text before us. Ultimately, any text is skimmable.

Like the slow food movement, you can read manifestos out in the digital ether on slow reading, and scholars and researchers will each suggest a panacea for the fast-paced bluster of our digital age. But I think it comes down to caring about the text and enjoying the—sometimes excruciatingly slow—process of comprehension. Our minds are busied and embodied, and wrestling for calm and concentration in reading is a small price to pay for the reward of thought in our lives.

I’m closing this post with a section from a poem I enjoy reading slowly.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city— 
But this is the nearest, in place and time…

T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"




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