On Reading Slowly

Can I confess something to you? You know that book I picked on Monday, the one I was going to read all week?

Yeah, I finished it.

I started reading it Monday evening—and it was just so good, and I had already been in suspense after reading the first book, and I stayed up until 2 a.m. and finished it.

Don’t worry, I have another book lined up for the remainder of the week (I always have another book lined up)—but in light of my recent binge reading experience, today’s task in the “Be a Better Reader” challenge is particularly timely: “Read More Deeply”—or in other words, slow down.

Don’t stereotype books

I’ll start with a caveat: some books are more suited to deep reading than others. Popular fiction—the kind of novel I refer to as “fluffy”—generally isn’t the kind of book that makes you slow down to look up words or puzzle over difficult passages. In fact, one of the appeals of this genre is that it’s easy to read.

Here’s the thing, though: most of us associate reading deeply only with high school English classes or difficult nonfiction books. In our minds, there are two types of reading: the kind that requires work, and the kind that’s fun. You work to read informative books, and you kick back and relax to read novels.

Once we think about books this way—in terms of a dichotomy that, in reality, doesn’t exist—we start to draw conclusions that gradually box us into a very narrow-minded way of choosing the books we read.

The problem with this way of thinking about books is that it’s just not true. It encourages us to rely on overly simplistic stereotypes to form our opinions about reading. We think nonfiction books are “boring” and difficult to read, while novels are for fun, not for learning. Nonfiction books are “useful,” novels are not.

  • I categorize novels as “not useful.” Therefore, if I want to read to improve my mind, I should choose nonfiction.
  • “The only purpose of a novel is recreational,” I think. Therefore, I don’t put a lot of thought into what kind of novels I read (no matter how predictable the plot and insipid the characters).
  • I want to relax, not work. Therefore, I’m not going to pick up a book that seems difficult, like a classic or a nonfiction work.

In reality, though, books—like people—can’t always be so neatly categorized. Some nonfiction books are easy to read and enjoyable—and some fail to teach us anything useful at all. Some novels teach us truths about human nature and about life in general that we absorb more readily because of the fictional genre.

And some books—even some novels—merit being read slowly.

Why read slowly

The “Be a Better Reader” challenge gives several suggestions for reading deeply. Some of them apply to any book—such as “look up words you don’t understand.” Some of them seem more suited to classics or dense nonfiction—such as “reread or paraphrase difficult passages.”

But what about books that we are reading primarily for enjoyment and relaxation? What’s the point of slowing down for those books? How can we read slowly without turning it into homework?

Here are three reasons you should slow down while you’re reading—no matter what kind of book you’ve chosen:

1. Slowing down is good for you.

If you’re anything like me, your life is moving pretty quickly. Our days fill up with appointments and events and to-dos almost without our realizing it, and we find ourselves rushing from one thing to the next, barely managing to catch our breaths before we’re off to the next place we desperately need to be.

The problem is that this relentless pace isn’t doing anything to help us. According to the American Psychological Association, “most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress,” putting us at risk for a laundry list of symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to headaches, muscle pain, and fatigue.

When you choose to read slowly instead of skimming or rushing, you’re creating a little pocket of time in your day where you’re not rushing, not stressing. Even if you only have 15 minutes a day—and even if it takes you forever to get through a book—the practice of slowing down is good for you.

2. Appreciate the language.

When you read slowly, it gives you a chance to pay attention to the way the author uses language.

Writing is about more than just putting words on paper. It’s about finding the right words to convey the exact thought you want to communicate to your readers.

Sometimes it’s about crafting language that’s memorable, a phrase or way of saying things that sticks in the reader’s mind. When you read slowly, you can take note of quotes that strike you, phrases that express a thought in a way that resonates with you.

Sometimes, though, it’s not about what the author says—it’s the way they say it. Sometimes, it’s about evoking a feeling, an atmosphere that draws the reader into the setting or the mood of the passage.

When the language is beautiful or unusual or captures your attention for whatever reason, slow down. Savor it. Read it again.

3. Let it change you.

Sometimes, something in a book sticks with you. There’s no discernible reason why that particular line or scene should have made such an impact—it’s not quotable, and the language isn’t any more unusual than other things you’ve read.

But for some reason, some idea or image in a book captures your attention. And when you’re reading slowly, you have time to acknowledge that.

Slow down. Sit with whatever it was that struck you for a while. Let it turn over in your mind. Stare off into space; or take a break and walk away. Let the words, the idea, the image soak in.

And it let it change you—in small ways, or maybe in large, or maybe just in a slight shift in the way you look at something you used to take for granted. That is, after all, one of the reasons we read to begin with: to come away a little more thoughtful, a little more compassionate, a little more wise than we were when we started.

Isn’t that goal worth taking the time for?

Do you tend to read slowly or quickly? Do you have any tips for how to pay more attention while reading? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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