How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Book - Girl Friday #1

I first felt guilty about being a slow reader sixteen years ago, when I started my English lit BA. On applying to uni I had imagined myself like those people who go on vacation and swim with dolphins ... I’d dive in and gleefully frolic amongst the books; they would lift me up, push me forward, inspire and enlighten me. In reality, it was like running down a dark, endless hallway, the other side of which lay a frighteningly persistent pneumatic ball machine, only instead of shooting balls, it shot books. And instead of me hitting them, they hit me.

I read hundreds of books during my English lit BA, and with the exception of maybe a dozen or so, I can’t tell you much about any of them. For me, that degree now consists mainly of a spattering of vague impressions and literary terms, and an appreciation for the insanity of Victorian psychology (as well as the uneasy feeling that I may have wound up locked away in an attic back then).

The English BA was much different from what I had imagined... (Image credit: Dana Keller)

The English BA was much different from what I had imagined... (Image credit: Dana Keller)

I began working in literary publishing at the end of 2014. Before then, I had worked mainly with magazines, journals, and websites. I had little book experience, and so upon starting with Vagabond Voices I felt obliged to confess my embarrassing handicap to the publisher, Allan Cameron.

Allan’s reaction to my confession of being a slow reader surprised me. He simply smiled and said that it really wasn’t such a bad thing, and in fact, it was a good thing. Allan writes fiction and non-fiction books, and poetry. He also seems to be constantly learning new languages. To say he loves words is an understatement. For him, the fact that I was a slow reader was actually a plus, because it meant that I took the time to savour the words as I read them.

I realised then that maybe I had been thinking about it all wrong. Maybe being a slow reader was a good thing, after all. Maybe a good book is like a lovely rich piece of chocolate which demands to be savoured, rolled around on the tongue, breathed in, and felt …

And now I’m eating the emergency chocolate I had hidden beneath my laptop stand.

Mmm … Where was I?

Ah yes, the benefits of being a slow reader. Allan’s reaction to my confession got me thinking. And that thinking got me writing. And that writing got me researching. And that researching got me … a bit discouraged, because I learned that people have been talking about the virtues of slow reading for years, and here I was only realising it now.

Apparently this has been going on for a while – at least since 2004, but likely even earlier. In fact, slow reading was one of the first things addressed by Slow Movement pioneers Carl Honoré (In Praise of Slowness, 2004) and John Miedema (Slow Reading, 2009). The slow reading movement isn’t particularly coherent. There are no real rules of operation to quote from, but the general idea, as expressed by Miedema, is that readers should read at the pace that best allows them to enjoy what they’re reading.

Researchers suggest we focus on the act of reading rather than on finishing a book.

Researchers suggest we focus on the act of reading rather than on finishing a book.

Miedema has conducted an impressive amount of research on the topic of reading speed. In short, the research suggests that there is no one right way to read. That said, studies also show that faster readers tend to miss the minute details required for deep comprehension and critical thinking. This is all right if you’re reading a general news piece, but it is much less useful if you’re a freshman battling your way through Deleuze.

Two questions that slow reading advocates ask are “What if we focus on reading rather than being done reading?” and “How can one best love a book?”  In his article titled “The Case for Slow Reading,” Thomas Newkirk offers some suggestions:

1. If you love a passage in a book, try memorizing it to the point that you can recite it out loud, or write it without referring to the book.

2. Read out loud. Make reading a sensual experience by feeling the words in your mouth and ears. Reading certain passages out loud may even reveal an underlying rhythm that you may not notice when reading quietly to yourself. This is particularly true for poetry (which our publisher argues should always be read out loud).

3. Ask questions. Work to understand what you’re reading. Look up words in the dictionary; question a character’s actions or an author’s word choices. Consider the information you’re being given, and the way in which it’s being delivered.

4. Use your book. This last one isn’t Professor Newkirk’s advice; it’s mine. I used to pride myself of reading books without leaving a single blemish behind – no dog-ears, no spine creases, no oily fingerprints on the covers. And then one day I dared to write in the margins. It felt blasphemous, but it was also liberating. Most importantly, writing, underlining and highlighting in the book as I read helped me better engage with what I was reading. If you don’t already do it, I urge you to give it a try.

This week’s homework, if you choose to accept it, is to try reading something slowly. Reread your favourite poem out loud, experiencing it on a sensual level. Memorize the first two or three sentences of your favourite book. Slow down and really take in a news article, paying attention to the way in which the author has chosen to share information. Choose your own adventure. We can all benefit from learning to slow down, and not just in reading.

This is a weekly blog written by Dana Keller, who operates as a girl Friday at Vagabond Voices, picking up various jobs as they come. The purpose of the blog is to discuss reading- and publishing-related topics, and to hopefully start a discourse with our readers and other publishers. You can expect to see this blog up on the Vagabond site each Friday afternoon (unless the author is battling Wordpress, as she was today, in which case it might be a bit later!).


“Reading Fast and Slow,” by Jessica Love, PhD. Appeared in The American Scholar (Spring 2012). 

"The Case for Slow Reading,” by Professor Thomas Newkirk. Appeared in Educational Leadership 67.6: Reading to Learn (March 2010).

John Miedema’s discussion of his research into the effects of reading speed at TEDxLibrariansTO, uploaded to YouTube on 29 January 2012.

Dana J Keller