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Reading Slow, Short, and Selective

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Let’s face it, we all need more time. Being retired, I have all the time in the world, yet it’s still not enough. After decades of guilt from never finishing my TBR pile, I’m giving up. I’ve decided to triage my reading.

  • Read slower to understand more
  • Read short to explore more
  • Read selectively to cherish more

Reading Slow, Short, and Selective

I’ve been mass-consuming books since 1962. Quantity was my only measure of reading skill. Then I discovered audiobooks. Their professional narration revealed my amateur abilities. Since 2002, my love of reading has been transformed by hearing words at a spoken pace with dramatic interpretations, altering how I read with my eyes. That’s created a reading renaissance in my last third of life that surpasses the explosion of book consumption in my first third.

Reading slower gives me time to imagine how the words should sound, plus time to decode more of what the author was intending. By reading slower I’ve learned that not all books are time-worthy. When speed-reading, I skim what can’t be digested quickly, just to fulfill that delicious joy of finding out what will happen next. Reading slowly reveals there’s more to stories than plots.

However, reading slow through a trilogy means devoting too much time to one author’s vision. Reading three anthologies of short stories provides far more diversity of writers, voices, storytelling, plots, characters, settings, and insights for the same amount of words. Reading slow means avoiding authors who want to hog my reading time. I now favor short stories over standalone novels and essays over nonfiction books. Sadly, short stories and essays aren’t commonly produced in audio, so I read them, and save my listening time for longer works.

It’s hard to find a novel or nonfiction book that can compete with the likes of The Best American Short Stories 2017 and The Best American Essays 2017 for the breadth of fictional experiences or wealth of new knowledge. Even with switching to shorter works I’m overwhelmed with anthologies of just the best. (Read my essay about the eleven anthologies that present the best science fiction of the year.) How do we narrow the best of the best?

Every day, The New York Times, Flipboard, and Feedly suggests hundreds of essays for me to read. An impossible amount. My daily habit has been to skim three dozen that attract me the most. I’m now learning I need to skip even the skimming. I’m testing two experiments to be more selective:

The first is to pick an essay a day, print it out, read it carefully, contemplate what it says, and make notes. My hypothesis assumes reading one essay carefully will provide more wisdom than skimming several.

The second experiment is to pick a topic, spend several days reading many essays on it, digest what I’ve read, and then write an essay that distills what I’ve learned. After that, ignore reading about that subject for as long as possible. This hypothesis assumes that keeping up on many subjects is impossible, so I should just pursue those that are the most essential to my day-to-day living.

The daily stream of news and essays is overwhelming. News providers believe we want to know everything. Even curated feeds give us too much. I’ve become selective about the subjects I embrace. It only hurts my ego that I can’t know everything. For my soul, it’s better to be a selective specialist than a generalist that grazes swiftly over too much.