In praise of slow reading: Let the words go marching by…

Don't run races with me...

I’m a slow reader. Let me qualify that: I’m a slow reader of books.

I can read fast when I need to — and I do that with newspapers, magazines, websites and many other displays of text that surrounds us. It’s almost an essential survival skill for today’s information society.

But when it comes to books, I take my time. Especially with good books (and I try to discern). Books are not to be rushed through; they are to be taken slowly, one page and one chapter at a time. I savour books as I savour a good meal. (And unlike with a meal, I regurgitate good books, which further slows me down.)

As a writer myself, I enjoy good writing by others. I can appreciate how hard it is to produce readable and enjoyable prose out of an alphabet of 26 letters (I write only in English) and a handful of punctuation marks. If a fellow writer went to all that trouble to create something out of nothing, the least I can do is to absorb and digest it well. (I should also add: I’m ruthlessly discerning in what I choose to read.)

Those around me are sometimes amused and puzzled by this. They know my capacity to marshal information and ideas, so they can’t figure why I don’t read books fleetingly. My friends as exasperated by another trait: how I read several books at the same time, progressing through multiple titles by switching between them. I guess this means I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Ah, well…

I was delighted to discover recently that there are others who cherish slow, reflective reading. There is, in fact, a slow reading movement — an eclectic group of academics and writers who want us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.

Read a book, lately?
“Readers make choices in the kinds of attention they give to texts–from scanning, skimming and speed reading to deep reading and rereading,” says Professor Catherine L Ross, Faculty of Information & Media Studies, University of Western Ontario when reviewing a recent book, Slow Reading by John Miedema.

Miedema, a technology specialist at IBM in Ottawa, Ontario, draws on both his personal reading experience and the extensive research literature on reading to make a powerful case for the deep pleasures of engaged, reflective reading.

He likens the slow reading movement to the Slow Food movement, which was founded in Italy in the mid 1980s as a backlash against American-style fast food. Both movements encourage increased mindfulness in the conduct of routine activity. As he says: “It’s not just about students reading as slowly as possible. Slow reading is about bringing more of the person to bear on the book.”

In a recent essay in Newsweek, Malcolm Jones asked if slow reading is antidote for a fast world. As he wrote: “…But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that we are all reading too much too fast these days. Yes, we’re drowning in information, but, clearly, reading faster and faster is not the way out of the deep end.”

It’s from this article that I found out there is now an International Day of Slowness, June 21. The Canadians, reflective and thoughtful people as they’ve always been, are giving leadership to it. By the time I read about it (slowly, of course), the day had already passed. But there’s always next year…

Another article, in The Guardian a few days ago, posed related questions: Has endlessly skimming short texts on the internet made us stupider? The writer, Patrick Kingsley, summed up recent research suggesting that an increasing number of experts think so. He came to the same conclusion as Miedema: it’s time to slow down…

Here’s part of the book’s promotional blurb: “Slow Reading brings attention to emerging ideas in technology and culture. The traditional technologies of print and the book have persisted as part of our information ecology because of the need for slow reading and deep comprehension. The theme of locality in the Slow Movement provides insight into the importance of physical location in our relationship with information. Most of all, Slow Reading represents a rediscovery of the pleasure of reading for its own sake.”

Read Chapter 2 of the book: Slow Reading in an Information Ecology

I want to read this book — but not online. I’ll get hold of it and meander slowly through it, as I do with any good book. This particular writer would expect nothing less.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “In praise of slow reading: Let the words go marching by…”

  1. Quite standard write up sir. I agree that reading books slowly gives us more entertainment and understanding the matter. Several analogies pop up while reading at slow pace.

    But there is also problem in reading several books at the same time; May be all books you must be reading of are same genre;

    But, reading book in one flow is another charm ! Its like watching a movie in one stroke . Yet, I agree that slow reading is antidote for a fast world.

  2. @Yayaver,
    Thanks for comment. All I was saying in this blog post is that slow reading has its charm and virtues. As for reading multiple books at the same time, no – in my case they are not at all of the same genre! Typically, I could be reading works of detective fiction, biography, poetry, cartoons and technology management — one more reason why my close friends are puzzled! But once in a while I come across a rare un-put-downable book that I read from beginning to end without dipping into other books. Alas, such books are rare — or I’m too fussy. Or both!

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