In Praise of Slow Reading

Fast reading can lead to quick, shallow conclusions that result in stupid decisions and hasty reactions that have long-term consequences for everyone. I'm sure we can all think of recent instances of this unfortunate tendency to privilege the impulsive over the reflective.
12/21/2015 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2016
USA, Oregon, Portland, Young woman reading book on log in forest
USA, Oregon, Portland, Young woman reading book on log in forest

Lately I've begun to really experience the deep visceral and intellectual differences between fast and slow reading.

The absorption, comprehension and contemplative levels reached by unrushed and careful reading in a comfortable chair (indoors or out) or in bed seems worlds away from skimming or even conscientious reading at my desk. I'm sure if I were hooked up to a machine that measured my body and brain states in both places, I would be amazed.

And although I can read digitally in both places, my slow reading seems even more satisfying when the print is on a physical page.

I don't think this is a big "aha!" Most of us have probably experienced a difference that's hard to describe, justify or explain. But what I'm coming to believe is that it's really important.

How we take information, deep thought or artistic verbal expression into our consciousness is surely at least as critical as how we ingest the food we take into our bodies. Perhaps the slow food movement that started in Italy in 1986 can be our guide in the world of reading as well. I certainly prefer the experience of a leisurely Italian luncheon under the pergola to a quick drive-through at McDonalds.

I notice that recently I've unconsciously started to even more rigorously divide and organize my reading matter and practices to facilitate slow reading as well as quick perusing. What's worth a quick look and what's worth a slow read are quite different.

Articles I find on the internet that don't quite penetrate when I read them at my desk or on the run but that I know deserve deeper thought are now more likely to be printed out or saved and brought to the bedroom or easy chair where they can be perused over coffee on quiet mornings or tea in early evenings, paper and pen at hand for underlining and note taking. Even old school handwritten slow note taking seems to access different areas of awareness than electronic highlighting, cutting and pasting.

Near my special slow reading sites the print books now pile up on a special table - almost an altar to ideas and reading experiences that might have some special or even sacred relevance.

Noticing my growing slow reading habit, I began to wonder how widespread the slow reading "movement" might be? It seems many others may be walking this path as well.

"Slow reading is the intentional reduction in the speed of reading, carried out to increase comprehension or pleasure. The concept appears to have originated in the study of philosophy and literature as a technique to more fully comprehend and appreciate a complex text. More recently, there has been increased interest in slow reading as result of the slow movement and its focus on decelerating the pace of modern life"

I would certainly agree that this trend is of a piece with the deep longing many of us share to "decelerate the pace of modern life." And undoubtedly many of us have discovered our own unique methods and tricks for managing the slow reading challenge.

Why might all of this matter? Surely it's at least a practical challenge for those of us who read for a living as well as for pleasure plus intellectual and spiritual growth. But it's also an issue of collective sanity for our culture. Fast reading can lead to quick, shallow conclusions that result in stupid decisions and hasty reactions that have long-term consequences for everyone. I'm sure we can all think of recent instances of this unfortunate tendency to privilege the impulsive over the reflective.