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What Re-Reading 50 Books in a Hurry Taught Me About Reading Slowly

Rioter in Residence


The Rioter in Residence is an author with a new or forthcoming work who joins the Book Riot team for a one-month stay.

This is a guest post by our current Rioter in Residence, Kevin Smokler. Kevin is the author of the essay collection Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven’t Touched Since High School (available now from Prometheus Books) and the editor of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, A San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of 2005. His work has appeared in the LA Times, Fast Company, Paid Content, The San Francisco Chronicle, Publishers Weekly and on National Public Radio. Follow him on Twitter @weegee.

Far and away, the question I get asked the most about my project to spend a year rereading books I was assigned in high school is “How?” Politeness keeps too many people from asking “Why?” “What” has thus far been code for “Why didn’t MY favorite book from high school make your list?” But everyone with a paper castle of books threatening to turn their home into a fire hazard would like to know “how?”

How did you read 50 “classics” in 10 months? Answer: Not ideally. It’s the only bit of sadness I have about this project, which I once described to my friend Patrick as “100% positive concentrate. Kool-Aid, no water.” I didn’t want to stand in judgement of high school books. I didn’t want to arbitrate what you should or should not be reading. And I certainly didn’t want my endorsement of reconsidering classics to be seen as a rebuke in the form of “….because watching television or checking Facebook is turning you into a drooling stupidhead with the attention span of a slot machine.”

But I wished I had more time. I had to read 50 books in 10 months. That meant not only making some tough choices, but writing Practical Classics in the exact opposite way from what it offers: An invitation to slow down, to savor, to treat books as a luxurious feast instead of a handful of peanuts horked down while running out the door. To say that, ideally, the act of reading should be a reminder that we actually have more time than we think.

Practical Classics had to be finished, snout to tail, in 10 months. That meant no hefty books (Middlemarch, Moby-Dick) no matter how much I wanted to read them, no books whose density made reading them like swimming in peanut butter (hello, the brilliant, maddening Mr. Nabokov. Hello, Mr. Chekov with your 9 dozen unpronouncable Russian-named characters). Out of fear of not finishing on time, I even had to cheat once or twice and move into the queue books I had reread many times already and therefore knew by heart. All of which left me slightly guilty, but that’s just the way books are made. You get an assignment and a deadline, and you write to meet your deadline. It may actually take longer, or you can flitter-flatter around and make excuses for why it’s taking longer. I being Kevin Smokler, who has yet to win a Pulitzer, get tenure at Yale, or invent a boy wizard, did not conclude that flitter-flattering was in my best interests.

But now that Practical Classics is real, I’m softening a little on flitter and her twin brother flatter. I, like you, have a baby elephant-sized stack of books next to my side of the bed, everything I wanted to read during the 10 months I had to stay focused on reading the 50 classics I’d assigned myself. I want to get to everything in that stack. I also, despite the pressures of time and self-doubt, had so much fun rereading classics that I’d like to go back and read some more. Imagining that turns that baby elephant into an entire zoo.

We all know this is the fate of every reader: Too many great books, not enough time. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want to be around the day I dust off my hands and say, “Well I guess there’s no more to read.” That isn’t any different than the day I dust off my hands and say, “Well I guess that’s it for sunsets, and hugs, and joyous laughter. What’s next?”

At war with sinking in and deeply enjoying reading is not the number of books out there but our pathological delusion that we will someday “finish” them all. We will not, and we know this. But our entire system of culture consumption is set out around queues–lists of books, movies, songs, and news articles we’d like to remember and “get to.” It’s a great service to have these reminders for what we want to read, listen to, and see. But their very nature creates a completely false urgency that everytime we finish something there’s a long line of other somethings waiting, tapping their feet impatiently and saying “get on with it.”

The only answer I have is one you probably already know. That slowing down and taking the time to savor what you read makes it that much better. It won’t spin garbage into gold (a lousy book is lousy at any speed) and you will, in aggregate over the course of your life, read less. But it will be the equivalent of having 6 good friends instead of 60 acquaintances whom you would not feel comfortable calling on the day a loved one has died.

I couldn’t slow down to write this book that I hope encourages slowing down, and that feels a little dishonest to me. So I can’t say my example will be most representative. I just have to assume that my advocating reading slower is a premise you’ll have to choose to accept (or not) on faith. I saw it as a great compliment when my friend Rob said to me, “Be sure to tell everyone that Practical Classics will not beep at you, will not insist on a status update or an @reply. It will not text you and ask where you are. It invites you to take some time.” Even though I cannot say I followed my own advice in writing it, and probably can’t in promoting it.

Instead I’m banking its message for a little bit later, in the meadow between the two mountains of this book and the next one. Where I will need the time to not feel hurried, to exhale, to read longingly and fully, to be ready for what’s next.

I’ll meet all of you there in time. I know I will.