In Praise of Slow Reading

When asked what I do for a living I will sometimes answer, “I read.” Then when asked what I do for fun I smile and say, “I read.” That is one of the joys of being a literary agent, the privilege of reading…a lot.

As such, the quantity of material that must be consumed just to keep up can be overwhelming. An ability to read quickly helps but also the ability to “graze” through material to capture its essence is a learned necessity.

For “fun” I like to read novels that are fast-paced science-fiction, thrillers, or suspense (I’ve already read four this month). They can be read extremely fast since it is the action that pushes the story. But they are usually disposable after I’m done. Fun, but not necessarily with substance…sort of like mind-candy.

I also scan dozens of non-fiction books every month. To see what a new writer is saying. To figure out why this particular one is a best-seller. To get a sense of trends in the marketplace. To find a book I want to really read some day. But as mentioned above, this is a form of “grazing.” Every once in a while a book will sieze my attention but more often they are simply “scanned and filed away” for later.

I’m not saying there isn’t value to this practice but it isn’t always the best thing.

What We Can Lose When Reading Fast

Unfortunately it feels like the consumption of massive amounts of material loses something. We can lose:

1. A sense of wonder at astounding literary quality
2. A deeper understanding of the themes in the book
3. Miss an important step in logic in a non-fiction book so that the presentation feels lacking (the fault of the reader not the writer)
4. An opportunity to let the words grip and mold the soul

It was last year that I came across a fascinating study of this same topic. In the book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics (Harvard University Press) the author presents 14 guidelines (or rules) for “slow reading” and then shows how to apply them in various genres. If you, ironically, do not have the time to read his book, at least read his Huffington Post article where he writes a synopsis of each of the rules.

Francis Bacon said it even better in one of his Essays:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

What to Read?

If I’m going to invest a month or more in a book, I want it to be worth the time. Don’t you agree?

Here are a few suggestions that may not be easy reading but should ultimately be worth that effort:
Non-fiction Suggestions

Teaching a Stone to Talk – Annie Dillard
A Divine Conspiracy
by Dallas Willard
Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey (also look for her new book Finding Truth coming in March)
The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker (read with discernment!)
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl
The Mystery of Marriage – Mike Mason

Fiction Suggestions

Barrabas Par Lagerkvist (won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951)
A Prayer for Owen Meany
– John Irving
The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The Chosen – Chaim Potok

The key with this exercise is to read them slowly. If it takes you twelve years to read these twelve books, that is okay! The plan is to take a little piece at a time and savor each bite. Let the ideas presented shake you a little. Let the craft of the writing astound you. This list isn’t comprehensive, simply illustrative. The list isn’t meant to be exclusively orthodox but is meant to make you think about your theology in a healthy way.

Pick one. And then post your thoughts on your reading…at least a month from now. Any sooner and you’ve read the book too fast.

12 Responses to In Praise of Slow Reading

  1. Avatar
    Joe Plemon January 19, 2015 at 6:07 am #

    I’m in. I just ordered Man’s Search of Meaning by Victor Frankl, and I promise to read it slowly (which, because I am a slow reader anyway, is a promise I won’t have trouble keeping).

    I’ll check back in the requisite month to share my thoughts.

  2. Avatar
    DIANA HARKNESS January 19, 2015 at 6:13 am #

    Nothing beats savoring a well constructed book in the same way we take our time over a magnificent feast. I have read most of the books listed and would add a few more: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett; Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr, Swamplandia by Karen Russell, and The Dead Don’t Dance and Maggie (or combined in Down Where My Love Lives) by Charles Martin. Revival by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and The Knowledge of the Holy by Tozer. And while I like your selection of Annie Dillard’s book, I prefer Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. The manner in which the words had been arranged provoked something beyond the book, its author, and myself. And that is the definition of something worth a slow, deliberate, thoughtful read.

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    Tori Starling January 19, 2015 at 6:14 am #

    I have noticed that there are certainly books that I can read faster than others, but I’ve never sat down to analyze it like this. I have been meaning to read A Prayer for Owen Meany (I have a sample in my Kindle), but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Thank you for the recommendation.

  4. Avatar
    James Scott Bell January 19, 2015 at 6:26 am #

    “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen

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    Chris Storm January 19, 2015 at 6:58 am #

    Couldn’t agree more! I’m in two book clubs and often sweep through the required readings. This same thought occurred to me just last night when I finished a kindle read in record time and loved it, but knew I missed a good portion. I cheated myself and the author who worked so diligently to create sentences and paragraphs that I skimmed over. There is something to be said for reading without a deadline, no in-depth analysis, no required feedback. Hmmm, could this be why we love books so much? And how did we ever forget?

  6. Avatar
    Susan Mary Malone January 19, 2015 at 9:07 am #

    One of the blessings and the curses of being in a world of words for a living! LOL. As much as I read professionally, I’m still reading for pleasure in my leisure time.
    Love your list, Steve! And Joe Plemon, Man’s Search for Meaning is a life changer 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Robert Winkler Burke January 19, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    Great postings, all. My slow exposure is listening. Primarily, an iPod with Eugene Peterson’s Message Bible… perhaps when going to sleep, sleeping and waking up.

    Next, is having my iMac read out loud the brilliant “Tragic View” opinion pieces of Victor Davis Hanson and Bruce Thornton.

    Third, listening to Mark Levin talk radio, yes he’s passionate, but absolutely correct about the Progressive rebellion against the Constitution that began 115 years ago…

    Fourth, you ask: What does this have to do with Christian writing? Everything! The great Christian preachers that created an environment for our Founding Fathers to create the second-most important docs in the world (after the O.T. and N.T.)…. is long gone due to changes in American education 115 years ago.

    Hence, the publishing industry in Christendom is unable to break out unto ameliorating thinking processes…. because what preachers gave our Founding Fathers…. is gone… until “Tragic View” Weltanschauung holders… give back to the preaching establishment/publishing establishment… what is lost so long ago… which is, the Mind of Christ… which redounds unto Christ-in-You… and Living Masters in God.

  8. Avatar
    Joseph Bentz January 19, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    Thanks for the tip on David Mikics Slow Reading book. That looks well worth exploring. As a literature professor, I applaud everything you say about savoring the great books. One privilege I have is that I get to teach some of them year after year, meaning that I get to read them over and over. The really great books never get old. The more times I teach and read them, the more I enjoy them. One of the joys of teaching these books is that I get to see some of the students get hooked on great literature too.

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    Thomas Allbaugh January 19, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    Wonderful suggestions. You offer here two important ways to not be “conformed to this world”: slow down; read deeply.

    I loved “A Prayer for Owen Meany” and “Gilead.” And just about anything by Annie Dillard is well worth your time.

  10. Avatar
    Rev. Michael Lessard January 19, 2015 at 5:40 pm #

    I have written a novel entitled, The Lost Dutchman. It is compelling story that bridges the after world and the world we are after. Would you be interested in looking at it? Everyone who has read it loves the book.

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube January 19, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

      Rev. Lessard,

      We do not accept queries via blog comments. It creates another “inbox” that is impossible to manage. If you would like one of our agents to look at your novel it would be best to check out the guidelines page here (www.stevelaube.com/guidelines) and then send it to us accordingly.

      Thank you for being a reader of our blog!

  11. Avatar
    Robin Patchen January 20, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

    Great suggestions. I’d add one to the list: Island of the World by Michael D O’Brien. Brilliant book meant to be savored.

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