Reading: speed or slow?


Have you heard of the slow reading movement? I hadn’t until I came across this article recently. It was in the Wall Street Journal and you need to subscribe or log in to read the whole thing, but here’s a quote:

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn’t make it through a book anymore.

“I wasn’t reading fiction the way I used to,” said Meg Williams , a 31-year-old marketing manager for an annual arts festival who started the slow reading club. “I was really sad I’d lost the thing I used to really, really enjoy.”

Apparently there are ‘slow reading clubs’ popping up all over the place quite, er, quickly. And there’s something pleasingly counter-cultural about the whole thing. In these days of reduced attention spans, changing reading habits on electronic devices, blizzards of tweets and sound bites, not to mention the ever-increasing time pressure more and more people find themselves under, the idea of immersing yourself in a good book in quiet companionship with like-minded souls is more than a little appealing. Isn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable, after all? Are we sometimes putting too much pressure on ourselves to read too much, too quickly? So that something that’s supposed to reduce our stress levels actually starts to have the opposite effect?

Funnily enough, a few months back I started on a book about speed-reading – which (just to demonstrate how fickle I can be) also struck me as a thoroughly good idea. After all, writing swallows up huge chunks of time, but us writers are also meant to keep reading too – and since writers generally love books that’s no great hardship, except that too takes yet more time. So the promise of doubling or tripling my reading speed, of being able to devour book after book and still have precious writing (and oh yeah, day job, relationships, food, sleep, etc.) time to spare, is an alluring concept.

However, I never finished the speed reading book (I struggled to find the time – yeah, I know: irony overload) and now I seem to have mislaid it. Ho hum.

So should I be reading fast or slow? I guess it depends on what I’m reading. If it’s non-fiction – if it’s for basically cramming facts into my brain as quickly as possible – then a way of doing that more quickly seems to make a ton of sense. But fiction? That’s more for pleasure. And if I’m reading something really good, lovingly crafted, I’d like to linger over it a bit more. Only if I’m reading something I’m not really enjoying – but still want or need to finish for some reason – would I want to speed up too much.

Bottom line, then, is it depends. I guess I don’t want to worry too much about how slow or quick I’m reading. I’m reluctant to put pressure on myself either way. I need to dig up that speed reading book, finish it and see if it equips me with something useful. But I hope it’s something I’ll be able to switch on or off as the occasion demands. I’d really hate it to rob me of the ability to linger over a good book.

Because when I’m reading a good story, I’m going to try not to dash on to the next page or the end of the chapter too fast. Fiction is made to be enjoyed and appreciated. Who knows, I may even join one of those slow reading clubs one day … but I’m in no hurry.



  1. I found your post fascinating! I hadn’t heard of the slow reading movement, but I can definitely see ow it would come about in this age of technology. I’ve noticed that if I try to read a book after having just watched tv or been on my computer, I have a lot of trouble settling down and focusing on the book. It’s like there’s a whole other mind set or way of thinking necessary to reading; but once I get going, it’s hard to put the book down.

    I definitely agree that reading speed depends on what is being read!

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes I think your state of mind, including what you’ve just been doing, can affect how much you can focus on reading. I think sometimes we need to give ourselves time to adjust, to get on the right wavelength and really get into a book. These days too often we expect everything to instantly ‘hook’ us, to grab and keep our attention very quickly, and tend to reject anything that doesn’t.

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