…like myself, and any others out there who were (and occasionally are) meant to feel somehow not as good as all you people who can whiz through books.
I know there are some of you out there who can polish off books in mere hours while us slow readers will take days. Sometimes it’s a question of mood. Sometimes its fatigue. Occasionally our minds winder, us slow readers. We aren’t necessarily savoring these books either, we read at the speed that is most comfortable for us and when that gets in the way of other goals it can have a huge detrimental effect on things.
Back in 1986 when I took my first stab at an MFA in creative writing, we grad students were marched across a hall at orientation and meant to stand in front of a freshman undergraduate class and introduced as the students who would be delivering lectures on selected titles. Our names, books, and lecture delivery dates were chosen at random right then and there. I was given two weeks to read and prep an undergrad lecture on Moby Dick.
I dropped out of grad school instead.
But I tried first. I went home and sat down with Melville, and tried like mad to get that damn book read and could not get past page 32. Even without a lecture assigned, we were expected to read two books a week, write compare-and-contrast papers on them weekly, and in our spare time keep a log of “all the other” books we read. It was expected, and none of the other students raised an eyebrow. Many relished the opportunity to devour books like mad and get little gold grad student stars on their heads while doing so. I felt like a failure of a student, and it took me another 20 years to get over that feeling and try again.
I’ve always had this “problem.” In elementary school things were mostly fine, but by the time I hit seventh grade the expectation to read and read closely never came to me. To do close readings slow me down even more, because there’s a part of my brain that’s second guessing whether or not I’m missing something. The epic battles in my head to shut down the doubting voice and the negative voice and instead listen to the story voice are sometimes an additional cause for the slowdown.
Stepping back a bit and thinking in defense of slow readers I have a question: just how many books a year is a person supposed to read?
Absurd question, no? It isn’t like we have a national average or standard for this sort of thing. People who like to read and read a lot occasionally tally how many books they’ve read in a year – Goodreads and Library Thing exist almost entirely for readers to show off their virtual shelves of books – but how many books should we, could we, expect an average human to read in a year? A dozen? A hundred? One?
Out of curiosity I asked my teen daughter what she thought would be a good number of books for a person to read in a year. After admitting that people read at different speed – she herself can polish off 300 pages in less than five hours – she thought it was reasonable to say eight books a year. She said, as an average, sometimes you’d read more books back-to-back and other times you’d go for long stretches without reading and sometimes you just wouldn’t be in the mood. Could she have been saying that for my benefit, knowing the old man isn’t anywhere near as fast a reader? Perhaps, but it was an interesting thought that an “average reader” who was reading for pleasure and at leisure would spend eight weeks between titles.
When I’m not busying myself with plot or picking at the bones of craft, I sometimes think about what an awesome responsibility it can be to tell stories. To ask strangers to take time out of their lives to read the words and think the thoughts and experience the emotions, it’s not something I take for granted or lightly. I am constantly thinking about that teen boy I was, and what he would read, and what he wished was available to him, because I remember how bad it felt to be effectively standing still while everyone whizzed past him in the fast lane of reading, and how he felt like he was somehow doing it wrong.
I pick up so many books now that stretch to nearly double the size of the books I would have read as a teen and find myself wondering why they had to be so long. Recently at this summer’s SCBWI conference Jon Scieszka was quoted (and retweeted) as suggesting that most picture book manuscripts need to be cut in half. I would say the same thing should be done with most middle grade books and a fair number of YA titles. I won’t name guilty parties here, but what a lasting testament to all those books I read that the main thing I remember about them is that they were too long by half, not their stories or their authors intent or that I enjoyed the experience, but that reading them felt like a chore.
It’s easy to dismiss the slow reader. He or she (most likely he though) is probably a marginal force in the market. Slow reading is anathema to the idea of book commerce, of quick sales and quick profits. And while it’s easy to blame our accelerated culture for leaving slow readers in the dust, I’m going to argue that the very same acceleration that has built fast readerships has done so to the detriment of books the way fast food has assaulted nutrition. I find I’m just not interested in hurrying up to gobble up the next book and then the next. Its like literary indigestion, I don’t find that pleasurable.
I am a slow reader, and I enjoy reading. It takes me longer to read most books and it’s taken me a while to be okay with that. And I am okay with that.