The power of slow reading in fast times
I am a slow reader, and that’s a good thing.
Let me give you an example. Go back and re-read my first sentence, more slowly this time. What do you notice about it? What surprises you? How does it work? You can’t answer any of those questions by reading it fast. Only through slow reading can you get an X-ray view of the writer at work.
When I read that sentence, I notice it is divided into two parts: 1) I am a slow reader) and 2) that’s a good thing. Both of those parts work as independent clauses. Connecting the two creates something called a compound sentence. There is a kind of equality, a balance between the parts. Turning from structure to content, my slow reading reveals to me a creative tension between the parts. The most important element in part one is the phrase “slow reader”; in the second, it’s “good thing.” Those two phrases are almost parallel: adjective-noun/adjective-noun. But all that equilibrium is upset by this common notion: that slow reading is a bad thing. So I read into the sentence a surprise, a revision of my thinking. You thought slow reading must be bad, a kind of failure; I’m telling you it is good.
I am writing a book on this topic called The Art of X-ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, to be published by Little, Brown in August. It will be the fifth in a series I have written since 2006 with the publication of Writing Tools.
Writing this book has led me to think about the experiences of reading in new ways, a path that has taken me from ancient epic poems to Twitter.
What I am about to describe is not a theory of reading, but something much more personal: a dynamic life of reading. While there may be doors every reader must pass through in order to be fluent, each autobiography of reading is different.
I once met a little girl named Paisley, now a young woman, who could sight read from the New York Times at the age of four. The first time I saw her do it, I fell on the office rug in laughter. She thought I had just started a new game, abandoned the paper, and jumped on me like the little kid she was. I know that there are other girls and boys who will never be able to achieve in their reading what Paisley accomplished by age four, which is too sad. So the formative experiences of reading are in no way universal.
If I had to list the stages of my own reading development – my ways of reading -- they would go something like this:
Comfort Zone: Sitting next to my grandmother, eating M&Ms, and listening to her read nursery rhymes to me. From that launch pad, no wonder I grew up to become a man of the word.
Language Door: From my earliest experiences, language was always associated with play. From recitations from a big story book, to the kid shows on early TV, to the lyrics of popular songs. A baby book kept by my mother reveals that I was a talking, singing, reading little boy, romping in a world of language.
Code Breaking: This was the hardest stage for me, combining the rigors of phonics with reading primers that lacked any story energy. There was excitement, no doubt in reaching that tipping point, where you learn to break the code, and you gained that sense that a new world had opened up for you. I remember the power of sounding out that Davy Crockett once killed a “gigantic” bear.
Story Time: The reward for breaking the code was a world of stories. People who cannot read still have access to stories, of course, through radio, television, movies, books on tape, and conversation. Something different happens when you can access stories on your own. The enrichment of experience has many benefits that influence our survival as a species, including the ability to separate heroes from villains, a knowledge of how to work together to overcome obstacles, and, most of all, the cultivation of empathy.
Meaning Matrix: With fluency in reading comes knowledge. When I was a kid collecting baseball cards, I used that ability to keep up with sports heroes like Mickey Mantle. As a young teenager, I used it to learn the secrets of adult life. In my senescence, I can access a Wikipedia page to learn T.S. Eliot’s middle name (Stearns) or the name of the lead guitarist in the folk-rock band Moby Grape (Jerry Miller).
Re-reading: The act of reading is often described as the triangulation of author, reader, and text. The most variable of these turns out to be the reader. When I read Gatsby for the third or the sixth time, I was seeing something new, not because the book has changed, but because I have changed. Revision is a word we associate with writing, but it applies to reading as well.
X-ray Reading: Here’s what makes X-ray reading so powerful: It incorporates all the earlier forms of reading and adds a layer of understanding. Stanford scholar Shirley Brice Heath argues that the most literate people in any culture practice three behaviors better than the rest of us. They read, of course, and they write. But they also have the ability to express how meaning is made through reading and writing. In this context, X-raying is a meta form of literacy, the power to read and then write about how meaning is made. It’s true that I am learning to read and write from my earliest experience of language in the cradle. As a literate adult, X-ray reading makes this experience much more efficient and practical.
While fluency is one goal of literacy, so is the form of slow reading that requires X-ray reading glasses. My college friend Lindsay Waters, now an editor at Harvard University Press, has written about the value of slow reading in fast times, the kind of interpretative understanding that can make reading transformative. Lindsay and I were students at Providence College. In September of 1966 all freshmen were given diagnostic reading tests. My parents were alarmed when they received a note from the company that administered the tests that I would benefit from a remedial reading class. I assured them that I was doing well in my classes and that my problem with the test was that I preferred to read slowly. Give me an analogy: Leaf is to Tree as Page is to ----, and I could deliver several delightful and surprising answers.
In spite of my lack of remediation, let’s just say that I did pretty damn well in college and then in graduate school and then in my professional life as a teacher and writer. Those successes were fueled in large measure by the ability to X-ray read, a power I brought to the experience, not just of the text, but of visual images, of narratives of all types, of music and other related arts, of personal interaction, of life itself.