“A good book is the only thing that will teach you how to read with a full mind, focused on enjoyment and mental profit” – Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, By David Mikics
The world is fast. Fast food, fast lane, even break-fast. annoyingly, this can also refer to enjoyment. When have you had a great time going to a concert, or watching a movie, or socialising, only for it to be over far too soon? In that moment you feel like it was over in a flash.
By contrast, comprehension is often slow. Is it not said that to listen to a message once, we must hear it three times? Also, how many times have you said ‘slow down’ or ‘say that again?’ When we want to fully understand a message?
What is slow reading?
Slow reading addresses the hectic nature of our modern existence. Slow reading is purposeful reading that allows the reader to surround themselves in that moment, noticing every enjoyable aspect of a book.
It should be said at this point that this article refers to the intentional act of slowly reading a book, not necessarily the unwanted slow reading that may arise from clinical or environmental causes of slow reading such as dyslexia, or vision impairment, ADHD or a dislike of reading, for example (Although, there are some tips for naturally slow readers further down).
Slow, purposeful reading can be viewed as an enjoyable past time, or a means to living more successful, mentally intellectual life or as an antidote to the pace at which our contemporary world wishes us to bumble along at.
It could even be all three.
“It is the antithesis of skimming an academic article, or a page online full of live links and flashing images” States David Mikics, in his book ‘Slow Reading in a Hurried Age‘. Mikics focuses on this modern problem in his book, offering ways in which we can learn to Slow-Read and research agrees with him. It is understood that, to truly comprehend and appreciate books, we need to read more slowly.
The curse of technology
Historically, our relationship to information, fiction and the written word as whole was very different. Writing was initially very rare until the invention of the printing press and, therefore was likely to be much more respected, revered, and considered important.
Of course, in this information age, we are utterly swamped with the written, usually digital, word and the focus now is on scanning for things worth reading rather than where to find things to read. The New York Times Best Sellers list is a good example of this, where we are presented with a group of books based on their sales, as if it would make easier the task of finding something worthwhile to read.
This scanning presents problems. One study showed, for example, that scanning more leads to reading less, which cannot be good for our enjoyment of reading, personal growth or the Slow Movement (see below). Perhaps that is why so much research is dedicated to the problems of the digital word.
Changes in eye movement whilst reading
The advent of the smartphone screen has made an impact on the physical way we read. In the entire history of the Written Word, the human eye has moved left to right in a Z shape in the West, or an N shape in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures, reading a whole line of writing, then diagonally moving the eye to the net line of writing.
Recently it has been discovered that the human eye scans for important information in an F shape. In a world where the need is for relevant information in a sea of words, the need for scanning has never been more prevalent. We now tend to read the first few lines, then skip to the next few lines, reading part of a line and then view down the left side for indicators of important information.
Scanning affects cognitive ability
This scanning technique is now exploited in web development, producing a vicious cycle of scanning which makes us expect quicker results when seeking interesting things to read. ‘With the benefits of wider access to information comes the cost of a diminished attention span’ said Erik Estep, when reviewing a book about slow reading.
A 2007 study involving 100 people found that a multimedia presentation – a presentation that included pictures, words and sounds – resulted in lower comprehension than reading plain text did. Similarly, it has been demonstrated that reading whilst also using technology such as Instant Messaging can also cause problems with concentration.
So, whilst phenomena such as The Goldfish Effect (so-called because the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013 – just one second below that of a goldfish) are being refuted, It is still clear to see that our reading habits have changed, which is part of the reason why reading for information is different to slow, deep, intentional reading where the aim is to soak up the enjoyment of words, written and implied.
How do I practice slow reading?
Interested in getting more from your free time and your books? Here are some ways in which you can practice Slow Reading:
- Shut off the laptop, tv and phone
- Find a comfortable chair and some god reading light
- Don’t read too late at night when you can’t focus
- Choose a comfortable place to read, it doesn’t matter where, so long as you are not distracted:
- Your favourite spot in the garden
- Coffee shops
- Park benches
- Whilst on a long journey where you are a passenger
- In bed
- By the fireside.
- Newspaper articles, tweets and (ironically) blogs won’t show you what reading is all about. Only a book can do that.
- Allow the book to speak to you, be patient, take the time needed, do not force read
- Use an E-reader or book – the screen of an E-reader has a matte finish and uses an LCD-like technology called e-ink which is softer to view than our Compter and phone screens and mimics the look of paper.
- How you read matters much more than how much you read – If you are a naturally fast reader, set aside 30-45 minutes to read, but do not focus too much on the time set aside, instead, focus on the text itself (and the subtext for that matter – more on that later!)
- Take occasional notes, so that you can notice even more about the book you are reading. reading leads to meaning and meaning leads to enjoyment.
I am a naturally slow reader, Can I practice too?
If you are a naturally slow reader, reading can feel like an arduous task, but fear not. ‘Doing’ is better than ‘procrastinating’. here are some tips for naturally slow readers who want to read more.
- Don’t try to read faster, but read more often
- Avoid outcome-based goals such as setting an amount of time or pages. Consistency is the main goal.
- Be selective – Choose a book that you will likely be glad to have read afterward.
- Do not compare reading speeds with others – the only person you should be comparing yourself to is you.
The benefits of slow reading
When we slowly read, without caring about how many pages we have read or how many minutes it has taken us, we allow ourselves to dive into a text and this is fundamentally enjoyable. It is an escape from our lives and it is a journey to a new place.
Improved understanding of implied texts
Slow Reading aids understanding of multiple layers of meaning, if the time is taken, and it is possible to spot patterns and map ideas over the top of the text.
A widely used example of mapping is when a text appears to be discussing one thing but is secretly discussing another. Pride and Prejudice, for example, is not just a love/hate story, it is a study on the different perspectives held about women in the late 18th century (mostly by the oppressing forces of the parents, men in general and the elite)
Another great example of mapping is Gulliver’s Travels. Is it a story about a man who travels to strange places and meets strange people, or is it also a scathing indictment of British politics in the 1720s?
Texts often say things in between the words themselves and this layer can easily be missed by scanning or surface reading. Time is needed in order to enjoy more levels of a book.
If we take the time to practice slow reading, (instructions below) then we will be naturally providing a quiet place in which we will not be disturbed by life, people’s needs or the pressure of time. These will also enable you to reduce the amount of stress you experience. Taking time out for yourself is one of the 5 recommended ways to reduce stress as laid out by the Queensland Government.
Slower rate of memory loss
A continent of study has been focused on the changes that slow reading can affect upon us. ‘Regular engagement in mentally challenging activities, including reading, slowed rates of memory loss in participants’ later years’, claimed the Wall Street Journal recently.
Improved social interaction and understanding
Echoing this sentiment, work carried out by David Dodell-Feder and Diana L. Tamir in 2018 showed that fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition…compared to nonfiction reading and no reading, fiction reading leads to a small, statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance; and this highlights an interesting point, that if slow reading is performed regularly, then a positive effect can be seen on the attention span.
Deeper understanding of texts
Advanced Elements of texts can be witnessed and enjoyed with slow reading, such as semantic mapping, visual perception of words, Skimming, Scanning the relevant information through incidental unconscious retention of language, according to the International Journal of Engineering Sciences & Research Technology, which has also been shown to be true in studies of spoken and written Arabic, strongly pointing to the benefits of slowly reading in any language.
These tips will fundamentally improve our fluency, because reading intentionally requires some concentration and concentration is like a muscle – the more you use it, the better it gets. Symmetrically, as concentration comes with time, so time comes with concentration, which will help your fluency.
So, go find a book you have always noticed but never read, follow the above tips include Slow Reading in your life. Reap the rewards.