In Praise of the Slow Read

The Art of Slow Reading

A friend recently lent me a book, and three pages in, I realized that the author tackled paramount topics with brilliant analysis and language. So I closed it, and returned it to my friend the following day.

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 the book for months, scribbling thoughts into its margins, dog-earring its pages, plastering the book with post-its where the scribbles spill its margins’ banks, and letting my tears crinkle the paper under its most insightful paragraphs.

Here are a few pages from my copy of Steinbeck’s masterful East of Eden, which I recently slow-read:

East of Eden 1East of Eden 2

I was confident that my friend didn’t want to have his book returned to him in the summer of 2014, looking like the paperback equivalent of Lindsey Lohan. So I gave it back to him, and bought my own copy to do with whatsoever I see fit.

I bring it up because recent studies show that the desire and ability to slow read are going the way of the dodo. Why so rare?

In The Shallows, tech guru Nicholas Carr blames our online habits for damaging our ability to process and comprehend what we read. Nonstop news feeds leave us hyperlinking from article to article; our reading sessions are frequently interrupted by the chime of a text or an email; and we scan splashes of words on Facebook and Twitter more often than we read longer texts. While books focus us and encourage creative/profound thinking, the Internet promotes a distracted sampling of knowledge morsels from an array of buffets. It lavishes us with bounties of factoids, but cripples our capacity to reflect and synthesize these facts into a coherent bigger picture.

The world is in the throes of an information revolution, and slow-reading’s neck is under the guillotine.

To understand the sea change underway in our methods of gathering and synthesizing information, compare the approach of a 10th grade student a decade or two ago to that of a 10th grader today in the following scenario: His humanities teacher assigns him a 3-minute oral presentation, due the following day, about Sherpas, which he has never heard of before.

In 1995, a student would…

… Go to a library, check out two books from the eight available about Sherpas, and read the books, thereby forming a knowledge base of all things Sherpan. The following day, he would tell his class about the expert mountaineers of Nepal’s high-altitude regions, and a little about their language, culture and accomplishments.

In 2011, he would…

(feel free to fast read this section)

… Slip in his iPod earbuds, and put Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” (feat. Lil Wayne & Busta Rhymes) on repeat. He would open his laptop, set his Facebook and Gchat statuses to “hOmEwOrK $Ucks,” and conduct a Google search for “sherpa.” As he would turn on the TV beside his computer, he’d feel his phone vibrate in his pocket, and retrieve it to see that “Hot Catherine” (a name she would have entered into his phone herself) had texted “heyyy what u doin???” He would set his phone down, return his focus to his laptop monitor, and click on the first of Google’s 24,900,000 hits for sherpa-related information: Wikipedia.

He’d take up his phone and type a response to Catherine: “stupid homework for Mrs Kilpatrick. u?” He would see that his Twitter tab announced 412 unread tweets, and spend the next 30 minutes alternately scrolling through them and texting Catherine, mostly about her new highlights, and the last Glee episode.

She would end the conversation with a “luv ya! <3,” and, despite her casual spelling, he would perceive the statement as an auspicious milestone in their quickly warming friendship. He would return to the Wikipedia article, and skim four lines before hearing the Gchat chime, which would prompt him switch to the tab supporting that page where he would see that SpiderMonkeyNinja98 had said: “wHat uP cHochY???”

For the next 52 minutes, our student would swap Youtube links and advice about World of Warcraft with SpiderMonkeyNinja98, and then set his Gchat status to “invisible” to reduce the likelihood of further interruptions. He would then remove his earbuds and listen to the Giants/Brewers game on his TV as he scanned the status messages of everyone in his chat list. He would notice that, 30 minutes earlier, Catherine had set her status to “texting the sweetest guy <3 <3 <3″ and his heart would leap inside his ribcage deliciously.

He would then notice that 118 new tweets had accumulated, but resist the temptation to browse through them, instead returning to the Sherpa article. He would resume skimming it until he saw a link to “Mt. Everest,” which he would realize he’d wanted to know more about since the previous summer when his cousin Gary had told him it was “B.A.”.

He would click on the Everest link, and scan two paragraphs before seeing a hyperlink to another article called “death zone,” which he would promptly click on in hopes of slaking his burgeoning thirst for disturbing images.

By the time he opened the “Death Zone” article, he would be skimming so rapidly that he would mistake the word “Hemoglobin” for the name of a Spider-man villain, and click on the link to that article because he wouldn’t yet have outgrown his passion for the Marvel Comics universe.

His evening would continue in this vein until 2:30 AM when he would stumble into bed. The speech he would deliver to his class the next morning would be so incoherent and utterly devoid of any Sherpan information, that it would ….well, it would sound like the speeches of many of his classmates who had taken similar research approaches.

This isn’t intended to be an anti-tech diatribe, but the example illustrates how our study skills are disintegrating. Our attention spans and deep thinking abilities are sacrificed on the altar of connectivity.

But technology isn’t the lone culprit.

Life is Too Short To Read Good Books

You could toss your cell, iPod and laptop into a river, and barricade yourself inside a candle-lit library, and still be besieged by concentration problems.

King Solomon said “Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.” And he said that before the internet, before Gutenberg’s printing press, and even before the Bible was translated into Klingon.

Worshipping as it's meant to be

—-

In The Art of Thinking, Ernest Dimnet offers some sage advice about how to avoid being wearied by the ceaseless onslaught of available reading material:

“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 twenty or thirty volumes will be your library, that is to say, your fountain of thought, your delight … NEVER READ, ALWAYS STUDY.”

Dimnet understood that we are finite creatures with embarrassingly limited learning capacities. Reading through a meaty book only once, especially quickly, does little for our long-term education.

(It is worth noting, however, that if you approach your blender’s instruction manual with the same metaphysical curiosity and philosophical reverence that you afford to Feodor Dostoyevsky, then you’re missing the point. We must differentiate between things we read for our formation, and those we read for our information.)

The Broader Picture

There’s a new fear on the scene called FOMO, or the “fear of missing out,” specifically as pertains to our worry that life will pass us by if we don’t digest thousands of nuggets from the interwebs each day. The 10th grade student from 2011 in the example above suffered from FOMO, but there are some who haven’t allowed it to hinder them, like this guy:

—–

I believe he was one of Napoleon's generals

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

The late Steve Jobs was obsessed with perfection, and harnessed it to transform Apple into the most valuable corporation on the globe. A key component of his perfectionism was focus. Shortly after Apple hired him on, Jobs said the company didn’t need more products, but that it needed fewer. He didn’t fear that Apple would miss out on some market opportunity, so he pared down the company’s R&D goals, and labored to perfect those few aims.

We are mortal, finite beings. We have humbling constraints on our time, and we can’t accomplish everything.

So, slow-reading means specializing. It means choosing the best books (for you) and devoting yourself tediously to them. It means stopping to look up any word or reference you don’t understand. It means consulting helps and commentaries, and keeping a detailed notebook of your questions, thoughts, and reactions to what you’re reading. Dimnet said, “To keep no track of what one learns or thinks is as foolish as to till and seed one’s land with great pains, and when the harvest is ripe turn one’s back upon it and think of it no more.”

Slow reading also means repetition. Stories like this one prove that we are capable of absorbing and storing a staggering amount of data, but our brains were designed so that we normally can not access the information we encounter unless we have repeatedly and fastidiously studied it. Slow-reading means becoming intimately familiar with the material so that you have ready access to it.

Slow-reading means quality over quantity, and striving to become perfect.

Slow-reading also means turning your back on the lion’s share of information available to mankind, and committing to a few painfully slender areas to strive to become expert in. For me those areas are finger-style guitar, French and English languages, writing, the rise of Asian powers, endurance athletics, song-writing, proverbs of all kinds, nature, geography, and way too many others, which is why I’m an expert in none.

If you read King Solomon’s most famous admonition in Ecclesiastes 9:11—and read it slowly—the way Steve Jobs, Ernest Dimnet, or King Solomon himself would have, you will discover some text written between the lines:

“Let your hand find only as many things to do as you have time to do with all your might.”

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“I long for eternity because there I shall meet my unwritten poems and my unpainted pictures.” ~Kahlil Gibran.

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7 Responses to “In Praise of the Slow Read”

  1. lacuenco Says:

    This is by far my favorite post so far. Like Steinbeck you have great perception into the human psyche and I think it gives you a lot of credibility. I certainly agree with you that slow reading is dying out, I even find myself being distracted by the vast sea of information and junk that is the internet. Anyway, I really appreciated this post and I think I’ll take another look at the way I research and study.

    P.S: Would you like a piece of coffee and a hot dog sandwich this weekend?! It’s for haves!

  2. Melinda Brown (@EssenceAflame) Says:

    You really give a person a lot to think about; this post and the one proceeding. Thanks for your depth of thought which surges my own into the same.

  3. Erian Villamayor Says:

    Thanks, JSJ! I slow read this very good article – my fave so far! =)

  4. QL Says:

    Wow! It’s like you are right there when I try to wikistudy! ;) Seriously, great post…but what about those people who have excellent recall? Can they get away with reading more and a little faster than two books a decade? Oh, wait FOMO kicking in and my twitter shows 14 new…haha. Anyways, appreciate your posts, they are thought inducing and provoking, and elusive at times.

    • a time to cast away stones Says:

      There are people out there called “mnemonists,” with fluky, perfect memories, like Solomon Shereshevsky (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Shereshevsky). This guy was virtually incapable of forgetting anything he had ever seen, heard, felt, etc…. Late in his life, he learned that if he wrote something that he desperately wanted to forget on a piece of paper, and then burned it, he could forget it.

      If you are like Shereshevsky, then feel free to devour books like cracker jacks.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. somebodysmomofthree Says:

    This is one of your best posts. So true.

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