How To

6 Tips for Slow Reading

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Christine Ro

Staff Writer

Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. Blog:

I can’t be the only one who gets to the final page of a book and immediately forgets every single thing about it. And I can’t be the only one who wants to change that.

The internet is awash in suggestions for reading more quickly. But let’s face it: you’re never going to get to all of the books you want to read. So instead of sprinting through a dispiritingly long TBR list, there’s much to be said for slowing down and savoring the books you can finish. You’ll absorb more from a book consumed at a more reflective pace.

Here’s how to read slowly, in a world that’s geared toward doing the opposite:

1. Read out loud, or have someone read out loud to you.

No, it’s not just for poetry. Being forced to enunciate every syllable prevents the eye from skimming over text to capture the gist. (It’s especially useful for foreign-language texts, to practice pronunciation as well as comprehension.) If you’re self-conscious about your own voice, try listening to audiobooks. Or at least sound out the words in your head as you read a page.

2. Turn reading into a social experience.

I’m currently winding my way through a trilogy of trilogies. (If I’d known it would be such a commitment, I never would have started.) I’ve roped a friend into reading the series with me, and we periodically debrief over a phone call or just send each other excited messages about the latest OMG-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened geekery. From reading in a pair to reading with a book club, sharing a reading experience with others draws your attention to details you might have otherwise missed, while noting down ones you can’t wait to talk about.

3. Annotate.

Embrace your inner literature student by underlining significant passages, making notes on the text, or doodling in the margins if you feel compelled to. I don’t idealize pristine print books—I appreciate ones that show their history of readership through well-thumbed pages or pencilled notes. But if you can’t bring yourself to mark up a physical book, ereaders have plenty of digital annotation tools. You can also write summaries of each section separately. And I hope it doesn’t need to be said, but just in case: Don’t write in library books!

4. Choose books that demand to be read slowly.

Complex graphic narratives like Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, footnote-laden beasts like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, short and piercing stories like Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia, grimly beautiful nonfiction like Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, rhythmic novels in verse like Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, or forays into plotlessness like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine are just a few examples of books that richly reward measured and detailed reading. Sure, I’ve got a soft spot for compulsive page-turners that I gulp down as quickly as possible. But thrillers and mysteries generally don’t lend themselves well to slow reading.

5. Force yourself to take breaks.

You can use this kind of literary intermission to, for instance, close your eyes and visualize a particularly descriptive passage; think through whether you agree with an argument that’s just been made; or ask yourself questions about what’s just happened.

6. Reread.

You can do what my reckless partner does, and not mark your place in a book. So it takes him ages to find the spot where he left off. This would drive me crazy, but I can also see the perverse pleasure of unhurriedly finding your spot, plus the surrounding context to better understand how you got there. Or you can embrace literary masochism and make yourself reread each chapter before moving on. You’d have an iron will to be able to do that.