Embracing Slow Reading

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Slow Reading Snail

There’s no real news this week and I’m still catching up on the books I’ve checked out over the past couple of weeks. So instead of a reading list this week, I thought I’d muse on something I’ve been trying to incorporate into my reading life: The concept of slow reading.

Whats funny is that I had no idea this was a thing. I’d heard of the slow food movement, of course. That’s the idea that slowing down while you eat is healthier, enables you to connect with the other people at the table, and teaches you to embrace food as something to enjoy rather than something to be hoovered down as fast as possible.

It only makes sense that this concept could apply to reading, as well. Turns out, a lot of other people thought so, too, because there are tons of articles on the subject. For once I’m in with the cool kids!

In our information-overloaded world, reading gets short shrift. Most of us now skim rather than read, even when reading for pleasure. Even students are encouraged to read as fast as possible (it’s called becoming fluent, now), comprehension be damned. Or, if comprehension is tested, many educators only care that the student has internalized just enough to pass the standardized test at the end of the year.

The need/desire to consume as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, has us all engaging in bad reading behavior, even when reading actual books or material we need to understand in depth. We just can’t concentrate anymore. We’re too used to clicking, linking, and info-hopping to actually sit down and read something in its entirety. And that’s a shame. It can also be dangerous, as when you skim that safety manual instead of actually reading it.

Slow reading lake

So what are the benefits of slow reading?

Slow reading is necessary if you want to make connections between bits of information. If you’re skimming, you’re just absorbing little factoids. Your brain needs to you to slow down so that it can connect Fact A with Facts B, C, and D. Research shows that our brains have not yet caught up with technology. Technology delivers information at a pace that we have not yet evolved to handle. (If you want to read a fascinating book on the subject, I highly recommend Distracted Minds: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.)

If you’re not making connections, you’re not only losing out on the power and pleasure of reading, you’re also impairing your ability to think critically. And that’s something that we all need more than ever these days. It’s only through reading and comprehending a variety of works that we learn how to separate good information from bad. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a pile of little facts that could be true, could be false, or lie somewhere in between. Skimmers don’t have a frame of reference with which to sort them out.

Worse, it’s possible that all you’ve absorbed are opinions. While opinions can be useful, if you don’t have the facts necessary to make sense of the opinion (and the opinion-giver), you’re doomed to live at the mercy of whoever is shouting the loudest. And that person isn’t always the best person to follow.

Of course, slow reading has other benefits, as well. It makes reading more enjoyable. What’s the fun of reading a novel if you’re not going to immerse yourself in the author’s world? If you’re not going to get to know and care about the characters? Why read non-fiction if you’re not going to internalize the concepts? Why bother reading at all if you’re going to rush through it? You might as well watch TV and have your information spoon-fed to you.

Slow reading also teaches you how to be a better communicator. You may not want to be a writer, but seeing how others use language and communicate effectively can make your own work better. Those reports for your boss, school essays, and even emails can become stronger when you read the words of others. (And understand how and why those words “work.”)

Reading slowly also reduces stress. It’s stressful to feel like no matter how much you read, you’re not getting it. Simply embracing what you’re reading and reading for as long as it takes is healthier. And if you’re reading for pleasure, the joy of escaping the outside world  and disappearing into a book is a general stress reliever.

There are other benefits, as well, but these are a few of the big ones.


How can you be a better slow reader?

If you agree that slowing down is better, how do you do that? How do you overcome the digital-age skimming that is so ingrained in many of us?

Read on paper (or at least on a disconnected device). Reading on paper has the advantage of not giving you a choice other than to engage with the material. There are no hyperlinks, no “if you liked this, try this,” suggestions. It’s just a book. If you must read on a device, get an e-reader that doesn’t have an internet connection. Or at least turn off that connection.

Put away the distractions. Put the cell phone in the other room. Turn off the TV. Eliminate the background noise so you can focus on the material at hand.

Schedule reading time. When you first begin reading slowly, it can be helpful to schedule that time. Let others know not to bother you. Make it an appointment and keep it.

Join a club. Turns out there are slow reading clubs where people get together to read quietly. For those who require accountability, these can work wonders. It can also give you a much needed social outlet, as many clubs have social time before or after the reading time. No club near you? Start your own.

Go back and read it again. Did you get to the end of a page and realize you were skimming or that you were thinking about something else and now don’t recall what you read? Go back and read it again. And again, if necessary. Don’t move on until you’ve conquered that page. Eventually you’ll get back in the habit of focusing.

Read aloud. The act of reading aloud makes it almost impossible to think about something else, or to skim. Read to your pets or just an empty room.

Make sure you’re up for it. Don’t try slow reading if you’re sleepy, in the middle of a crisis, waiting for someone to arrive or an appointment, or otherwise in a situation where your attention is divided. You’ll only end up frustrated and back to skimming.

Take notes. Write down any words you don’t understand. Write down any concepts your want to research further or questions you need to answer. Make note of phrases you love, or quotes you want to memorize. Write down suggested websites, or supplemental bibliography sources. Not only will this increase your comprehension, writing it down means you aren’t moving away from the material to go look up something else right now. You can engage with this other material later, when you aren’t trying to slow read.

Pick the right material. Don’t start trying to slow read with something huge and dense like The Odyssey or A Tale of Two Cities. That’s a path to failure and frustration. Pick an old favorite, or something lightweight that you know you’ll enjoy. Even a magazine will work, as long as you’re actually reading the articles and not skimming the pictures, captions, and ads.

Quit, if necessary. If, despite your best efforts, you’re not slowing down, quit and try again later. Don’t force yourself. You’ll come to hate reading if you do. Just walk away and come back another time.

(Photos courtesy of BibBornem, Oldiefan



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