I love to read books. I exist in a circle of friends and acquaintances who share this passion. However, I think there’s a big difference between me and most of these other readers. I often see posts and memes on Facebook and Twitter touting “bloodshot eyes” from all night reads where they couldn’t put a book down. This never, ever, happens to me. I never read a book I can’t put down. The reasons for this aren’t what you might think. Let me explain.
Reading fast is something that I can do. All of my classes as an undergraduate and a graduate student required reading the assigned novels quickly. There is one class that stood out. It was a class on the 20th Century American Novel during a short summer term. The class required me to read a novel a week and write a paper on it. I did not enjoy that class. I didn’t enjoy reading any of the books. In fact, they seemed like bad books. I’m fairly certain the rush to read them had a lot to do with my opinion of them.
In contrast, I remember the first book I read by choice after I graduated. It was Dicken’s Bleak House. With the pressure of professors and papers gone I was able to read the book slowly and deliberately. I remember the experience being delicious. From the opening paragraph I started slowly:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
I was still reading slowly when I reached the part where one of the characters–one who consumed copious amounts of alcohol–became a victim of spontaneous combustion:
“Aye!” says Weevle, “Here I am, Mr. Snagsby.”
“Airing yourself, as I am doing, before you go to bed?” the stationer inquires.
“Why, there’s not much air to be got here; and what there is, is not very freshening,” Weevle answers, glancing up and down the court.
“Very true, sir. Don’t you observe,” says Mr. Snagsby, pausing to sniff and taste the air a little, “don’t you observe, Mr. Weevle, that you’re–not to put too fine a point upon it–that you’re rather greasy here, sir?”
“Why, I have noticed myself that there is a queer kind of flavour in the place to-night,” Mr. Weevle rejoins. “I suppose it’s chops at the Sol’s Arms.”
“Chops, do you think? Oh! Chops, eh?” Mr. Snagsby sniffs and tastes again. “Well, sir, I suppose it is. But I should say their cook at the Sol wanted a little looking after. She has been burning ’em, sir! And I don’t think” Mr. Snagsby sniffs and tastes again and then spits and wipes his mouth. “I don’t think,– not to put too fine a point upon it–that they were quite fresh when they were shown the gridiron.”
To read lines as delicious as these quickly would be a sin as great as wolfing down a $250 dollar dinner at a five star restaurant. No, lines like these are to be read slowly, with a pause following, to let them be digested for their full value.
I suppose one of my friends may point out that reading a book from beginning to end in one sitting isn’t necessarily about reading the paragraphs quickly–it’s about the book being so engaging that you can’t stop reading until forced to by running out of pages to read. Is it that I am not reading books that are that engaging?
I would have to disagree. During the two months I spent reading Bleak House I was completely immersed in it. The twentieth-Century world in which I lived was seen through eyes filtered with Victorian colors. The frantic Twentieth-Century sounds were intermingled with the sounds of horses’ hooves on cobblestones, the shutting of heavy oak doors, and the rustle of petticoats under long muslin dresses. I was angered by some characters, charmed by others, and several more I was completely in love with. The plot, with its many children, moved forward with all the power of the Mississippi River. This was an engrossing book, but it was also a beautiful experience that I would not hurry through.
I spent a year reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s not that I purposefully read slowly. Like most my life is busy and I don’t find it easy to put my personal reading into my daily schedule. It can be weeks between the end of one reading session and the beginning of another. You may point out that this should encourage me to read more or to read faster while I have the time. The thing is, I don’t have to. The magic of a book is that it is eternally patient. My books hold their place and wait for me as faithfully as Sonya waits for her convict Rashkolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The story does not go on without me. The story does not grow stale. The story does not resent my absence. It picks up fresh and vibrant as do two old friends who unexpectedly run into each other in the park.
Not all books require a slow reading. Since collage I have read many books in one sitting. Two of these were The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games. These books were catchy and had plot lines that took off like drag cars on the race track. I did feel a thrill while reading them, but the reason I read them so quickly was because they didn’t require a slower reading. I could pump through the pages without worrying about missing a thing. I wasn’t eating the expensive dinner from the five star restaurant with its subtle and nuanced flavors, but a tasty hot dog from a street vendor. I don’t read these kinds of books often because they don’t give my soul much nourishment. They are momentarily entertaining, though.
I have been reading to my children for the past thirty years. Yes, I do have a lot of children–eight last time I counted. Still, thirty years can only be accounted for by my reading to them until they leave home. Often, as when we read the Abhorsen trilogy or the Harry Potter series, my children (and wife) would beg me to read another chapter after I had determined to quit for the night. I would resist this. I was enjoying the reading experience as much as they were. That is exactly why I didn’t want to read another chapter. Didn’t they know that if we read another chapter we would finish the book that much sooner? And that the sooner we finished the book the sooner this particular wonderful time together would end? I would assure them that since we would most certainly reach the end of the book, why not let the end come slowly, deliciously? I think I lost that battle as many times as I won it. It’s a battle that continues with my last three children who remain at home.
I know that people have a right to read books as quickly as they want. I imagine that reading styles are as varied as people’s personalities. My personality longs for the book that wants a slow read. I need the books that will be my friend for more than a night. These books do not depress me when they come to an end; they have power over death (the turning of the last page) and continue on with me throughout my life. When it comes to books, I’m looking for a committed relationship.