In Praise of Slow Reading

I always love seeing the December end-of-year reading lists from friends. One of social media’s few unambiguous benefits is how easy it is to get good recommendations for reading, watching, listening, etc. But I have to confess that every year around this time I get a little embarrassed when I see friends post 15 or more books on their end of year list (and I have a lot of friends who do this). I always click the links, but while scanning for their recs I’m usually distracted by the guilt and frustration I feel for not having read that many books.

Aside from any work-required reading, I almost never read more than 6-8 books in a given year. If that makes you think less of me, I don’t blame you. I’ve come to realize that most people in my line of work and in my social circle read at least twice that many, and many read more than that. I have two excuses, one of which is boring and the other of which is more interesting. The boring excuse is that my job requires me to read a lot. Not only does work reading take up many hours per week that might otherwise have been given to pleasure reading, the truth is that after a long day of going through manuscripts and proposals and edits, I’m usually done with reading. I’d rather watch football or The Crown. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but it’s just where I am.

The slightly more interesting excuse is that I’m a genuinely slow reader. Books that I love are almost never completed in less than two weeks. Books that are ho-hum take significantly longer (unless I’m under a review deadline). Over the years I’ve realized that my slow reading requires two responses. First, I have to be very selective in what I choose to read off of work hours, and even more selective in what I choose to finish, since finishing will require more time. Second, I have to be OK with this. I have to accept that my slow reading is not a character deficit or an intellectual handicap but simply the way I read. And being OK with this means not trying to artificially get around it by excessive speed-reading (which is almost always only for the sake of being able to say I read something) or by trying to read 4 books at the same time (which I find very difficult and frustrating).

Slow reading isn’t fun in December, when your small pile of books looks even smaller compared to others. But there are some benefits to slow reading I’ve discovered. The first benefit is that being able to linger in a work long enough to absorb not just the words but the spirit of a book. I’ve found this matters quite a bit to me. It’s one thing to remember the overall thesis or claim of a book, but it’s another to have connected with it closely enough to know what kind of book it is. In my writing life I’ve often found that responding to a book’s contribution in a particular genre is often not ultimately about what the book said but how it said it, the posture the author took, the strategy she employed and the spiritual or emotional response the author was trying to elicit. These responses stay with me more closely than the exact phraseology of the book, and in my own life they’ve been key in helping me know what books to return to in which seasons.

Another benefit I’ve gotten from slow reading is the selectivity. We often think of selectivity as only exclusive, i.e, I’m selective so that I can exclude certain books. That’s definitely part of it—I’m always amazed how many people tell me about the bad, long books they finished—but selectivity is also about trying to incorporate as meany meaningful, likely-to-be-remembered works into my reading life as possible. Time is non-transferrable, and the time I might have spent reading a book for no better reason than I wanted people to see that I’d read it would be much better spent reading a book that could plausibly turn into a valuable experience or resource for me. Careful that you don’t hear me arguing against reading widely. On the contrary, the intellectually dulling effects of only ever reading the kinds of book you’d like to write are everywhere in my corner of evangelicalism. Reading fiction doesn’t require that you read all kinds of fiction, if most kinds of fiction bore or numb you. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that being selective within fiction or within nonfiction actually lets me read more of both. It’s very freeing to not chase down books you really don’t want.

But look. The bottom line is that slow reading, while at times socially inconvenient, is very enjoyable. It’s fun to not hurry. It’s fun to listen to a book closely rather skimming for highlights you can tweet or blog about. Reading should be pleasurable, and slow reading is, for me anyway, the way I get the most pleasure from it. My end of year list would be small, but it’s certainly memorable.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Slow Reading”

  1. I like how reading a very dense older non fiction book (like von Mises’ Socialism) will make you feel like you can barely read, but once you finish, you’re noticing you’ve improved reading speed and comprehension through that grueling but good task.


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