Reading Fast is Overrated

In the early years of my reading life, when I was voraciously reading any chapter book I could get my hand on, I was rewarded for how many books I read. I was proud of myself when everybody knew I’d read more books than anybody else in my grade. I was annoyed in a sort of delighted way when my mom told me she would only buy me a book if it was one that I wasn’t going to finish that night. She wanted me to challenge myself a bit. I pick Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I don’t know how much I understood, but I was out to prove a point and I finished it a couple months later. I sped through books like a puppy who found the bag of treats. I tore them open, ate them up with no thought to flavor or style, then looked for more. This was a learned and overrated habit, one that has taken me years to unlearn and overcome.

Reading fast is not inherently bad; like everything else, it has a time and a place. In fact, many people, myself included, wouldn’t have gotten through their college coursework without learning to read fast and/or skim. Not everything we read needs to be fully taken in and processed. Sometimes you just need to get the headlines, the topic sentences, and run with it. The problem comes when reading fast and skimming becomes the habit, the go to style of reading. It’s a problem when it is valued more than taking your time and savoring each word.

Forcing myself to slow down and take in each scene of a story makes me a better thinker. It gives me time not only to stop and smell the metaphorical roses of reading but also to understand in a critical manner what I dislike about stories. I’m able to have a more intelligent conversation about books that I’ve read slowly and with intention. I am better able to point specifically to style, themes, and even specific words used because I gave myself time to really ingrain them in my brain and process them.

It bothers me when I hear people say, “I’m a slow reader” with a hint of shame in their voice. It is used as reason for people to not read, as a reason to leave a conversation about books. Sometime people really just don’t want to read or talk about books. Sometimes, though, they want to participate but it comes at the cost of admitting they’ve only gotten through half the book so far, or they’ve read only half the books in a year the rest of the group has. This happens because people like myself have bragged about how many books we read. I honestly do still feel a little bit of pride when someone comments on or praises how much I read. What is being praised, there, really? The fact that I probably didn’t take in as much as someone who took twice as long to finish the book? The fact that I’m not challenging myself?

I’m making an effort to slow down. In the meantime, when someone says they read slowly, I listen to them a little extra, because I’m sure they’re picking up on things I was rushing too much to figure out.

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Celeste Ng, Jesmyn Ward, and Robin Sloan recommend their favorite books in our newest podcast, Recommended. Download it for free from Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
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