Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Art of Reading Slowly, Or, Read Like You Eat

America believes in fast: fast cars, fast food, fast writing. Look at Stephanie Meyer. She wrote Twilight in, what, two months? Wow, that blows my mind. We love speed.

I know a lot of people who read fast. I've heard rumors that JFK read some ridiculous number of words a minute--7,000, or something, though I have no legitimate source on that. I took a speed-reading course in college, even taught speed-reading mini-classes as part of my job at the reading/writing center where I worked. I know HOW to read fast. But I don't do it. Not that I didn't understand all that speed-reading stuff. I just didn't like it. I never could make myself practice.

I like reading slowly.

Not that there's anything wrong with reading fast. I admire those people who can read 2 or 3,000 words a minute. Or even 700. How nice to be so efficient. It has to be good for school.

But I read slowly. I mean, really slowly, as in read-aloud-slow, like Charlie Brown's Snoopy from the old Peanuts comic strips, who moved his lips when he read, to Lucy's disgust. Only you might not want to cut me as much slack as Snoopy, since I'm not a dog (I also hope my novels are slightly better than his; they all began, "It was a dark and stormy night..."). I'm not going to apologize for the slow reading, though.The better the book, the better the language, the more likely you are to catch my lips moving. And I felt vindicated when I read that Stephen King, who reads voluminously, considers himself a slow reader, too. Yeah, me and Snoopy and Steve.

I like to read the way I eat, savoring the textures and flavors and details. I love the way some authors rub words together. I like to hear those sounds, feel them in my mouth. Kate DiCamillo's new book The Magician's Elephant is great for lip-moving reading. Words delight her--you can tell. Her words delight me. And poetry, how can I do it justice inside my head? Language is all about sounds. That's one of the great things about reading aloud to kids: you get to experience the whole book aloud.  You get all the roundness and play of the language in your mouth. It's delicious.

I don't always read slowly. Sometimes I don't have time; sometimes I don't care, or it's not worth it. You won't ever notice my lips moving when I scan the morning paper for headlines. If I'm really in a hurry, I might even make myself dust off the old speed-reading techniques and go for pure speed; for example, if my book group is meeting tonight and I just got my copy of the book today.

But I don't do fast with the really good books, if I can help it. They deserve slow.

Or the really bad ones, come to think of it, like my old university Physical Science textbook, which I spent all my time copy-editing instead of studying, because the terrible grammar drove me crazy. I got a C in that class. Oops. But the book was all fixed and ready to go to press for a second round by the end of the term.

You might try Snoopy-style reading sometime (do NOT copy-edit your science book!). Slow down, taste the words. It's an art, really. More people ought to dabble in it.

And you can think of me, reading to myself, lips moving as I go.


  1. My father is a dining-reader. He savors, he enjoys, he fills. Me, I'm like a piggy at the trough.

  2. How lovely. I don't know why, but I've always been a quick reader. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of my mind, I feel this insatiable need to read as much as possible before I die. Who knows. The times I'm reading a rather tantalizing book, I slow down towards the end...almost like I don't want it to end.

  3. I like to read slowly as well. I also re-read a lot. Some writers would consider my doing that to their books a failure on their part, that their writing "took me out of the story." But I go voluntarily, and the re-reading adds layers and textures that I might have otherwise missed. I don't mind taking my time with books. MT Anderson's masterful Octavian Nothing (both volumes) is a prime example of a novel I read slowly so as not to finish it too quickly. I didn't want to leave that language.

  4. I don;t read too much but I catch myself reading fast and then re-reading the parts I really like, so I can take it all in. So I guess, reading slow in the first place would help. I am also still working on eating slow... I am so glad I read your blog since it gives me something else to think about besides kids and training. Thanks.

  5. I don't think there's a right or wrong way to read, as long as you love it. Piggy at the trough works, L.T. Especially useful if you, like me, prefer to read a book all in one sitting. 3 am is a bummer of a time to read slowly.

    Matt and Teri, yeah, I hate it when a great book is over, too. I'm probably subconsiously trying to postpone that when I string out the reading.

    And Sara, I love going back and re-reading my favorite parts, too.

  6. I must confess....I would speed-read through my college texts (and take reallllly good lecture notes!).

    But, otherwise, I'm like you. I love to savor the words, picture them, visualize the characters doing and saying and being--especially if I'm enjoying the story.

    My favorite thing to do in a particularly intense part of a book (and I'm a nut for doing this!) is to read up to the moment of outcome...and then...stop! Anticipating the outcome and trying to figure out what will happen next--perhaps rereading the paragraph leading to the 'revelation' (or whatever it is) again and then plunging headlong into discovery.

  7. Wow, you have will-power, Cat. I think I could only make myself do that after I've read it through once. I love hearing all the ways people love books!

  8. Thank you for the informative post.

    One simple and successful way to increase speed reading skills is to read whatever you need to read as early in the day as possible. Your brain is most alert soon after waking so this is something you need to be taking advantage of. Unfortunately many of us leave our reading until late in the evening when we are already mentally exhausted. You'll actually be able to read at a quicker rate and retain more of the information if you get in the habit of reading earlier.


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