In Defence of Being a Slow Reader

In Defence of Being a Slow Reader

As a child, I read voraciously and could often be found juggling two or three books at a time. Countless copies of Horrible Histories and Jacqueline Wilson were taken from libraries and I soon felt spoilt for choice. The desire to read as much as possible began to compete with computer games, TV and an increasing workload geared towards exams.

Of course, reading never disappeared completely from my leisure time, but it certainly became a slower process. My trips to the library grew more infrequent and the choices more selective, particularly if I was going through a series. There were certain years in which I presented myself with challenges like reading all the Harry Potter books or getting to know modern classics and why they were deemed to be so. I was especially fascinated with the bildungsroman and how coming-of-age stories could potentially help me to navigate adolescence. While I found Holden Caulfield a little too whiny, I instantly fell in love with Cassandra Mortmain and the eccentricities she described of living in a dilapidated castle.

Before I knew it, I was at university undertaking an English degree. The reading lists felt a little intimidating at first, but exciting nonetheless. I – foolishly – had a vision, that by the end of my three years of higher education, I would somehow be more enriched by having completed these lists. Now, that may not be an entirely absurd outcome from an English degree, but it was certainly a simplistic attitude to have. It didn’t take me long to become overwhelmed with the quantity of required reading every week, let alone discussions about the definition of literature and how to argue about it using post-structuralism.

Although these anxieties were heightened by homesickness, an inability to cook properly (who knew that your diet could affect your concentration levels?!) and the general pressures of being a fresher, I quickly got accustomed to reading the bare minimum for my classes. The night before a seminar, I would usually accept defeat and read around the context of the work or check summaries of the plot on SparkNotes, so that I could sufficiently make a contribution. It wasn’t always the case that I disliked the syllabuses, but more that, I couldn’t focus on anything for very long before ordering a Domino’s and watching Desperate Housewives with my flatmates.

This is hardly a unique reaction to studying anything at university. But all this pressurised reading seemed to have caused the exact opposite of what I had hoped to achieve. Rather than develop my enjoyment of literature, I now associated reading with attempts so rushed I was barely able to connect with the narratives, let alone appreciate the motives behind it. Some texts did move me regardless, while others forced me to try harder to understand them. I regularly took out books from the library that had nothing to do with my studies and could help me fall back in love with the written word. These were texts that I didn’t pressure myself to finish or easily follow, and they were thus kept on my bedside table for months on end as I repeatedly renewed them.

Like any student, I graduated with an enormous sense of relief. I could read anything I liked now! And more importantly, I could take however long I wanted to read. I may have celebrated by watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix, but I was truly excited to no longer treat reading as an obligation. This freedom was cut a little short by the decision to carry on with my studies and do a Masters. Although I’d changed departments and was now worrying about the definition of art history and how to argue about it using feminist theory, I was still haunted by all the texts I’d left unfinished.

Having completed my studies and upon starting my working life, after a discussion with a friend who had also studied literature at university, we both agreed that with our busy working schedules it was nice to return to reading as a way to unwind. There was no duty to hurry through pages and formulate an argument. The urge to binge episodes of television series or podcasts doesn’t seem to apply to reading. If I’m immersed in a character’s world away from the hectic hustle and bustle of the daily grind, I want to stay there for as long as I can, desperate (as I often am) to find out what happens to them in the end.

Little did I know that this conscious effort to engage with literature has been dubbed “slow reading”. Critics have likened it to the popularity of movements, such as slow food and slow travel, which promote the benefits of putting time and effort into certain activities. Advocates for the approach tend to agree that “temporary isolation from technology” is vital for combating dwindling attention spans. Thomas Newkirk, author of The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement, argues that: “By slowing down, by refusing to see reading as a form of consumption or efficient productivity, we can attend to word meanings and sound, building a bridge to the oral traditions that writing arose out of.”

Like yoga and mindfulness, for the work-stressed among us it sounds so appealing. And yet, I can’t help but approach the practice of slow reading with some trepidation. I might currently enjoy slowing the pace of my reading down, but that doesn’t mean I pit it against racing through texts. Whatever may suit you now could be completely different in a week or a year. Embracing those developments will allow you to get the most from your reading.

Slow reading requires an element of self-discipline and it’s never been more important to focus on a leisurely activity that can leave us feeling fulfilled and bolstered. Instead of pushing through a novel that’s tedious or frustrating, move on. Perhaps you can return to it later with renewed determination. On the other hand, if you find yourself unable to put a book down, savour that excitement and let it inspire you to find something just as good to read next. Although it can be hard to ignore notifications and repress the impulse to scroll through Instagram, I think I’m finally beginning to read at a rate that feels comfortable and doesn’t incur any library fines!


Written by Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell,


Visuals by Roy Lichinstein and not owned by XXY Magazine LTD