On Being a Slow Reader in the Literary World

June 1, 2020 § 8 Comments


holly hagmanBy Holly Hagman

One of my earliest memories of spending time with my mother was of us at the beach. Between sandcastles and shell-collecting, my mother would pick up her newest James Patterson novel and suddenly be unreachable for vast chunks of time. She would read all the time while I was growing up; picture books with rhyming words for me, mystery novels and realistic fiction for her. Christmas one year, instead of the traditional booklight, my father bought her a miner’s headlamp to wear in bed at night while she was reading. When she pulled it out of the stocking, we all laughed hysterically, but she wore that thing every night that Dad had work the next day and she needed just one more chapter.

Despite being surrounded by reading for my entire childhood, I didn’t pick it up myself until freshman year of high school. A late bloomer, my love for independent reading didn’t kick in until The Perks of Being a Wallflower was assigned for a friend’s summer reading project. I didn’t like my own summer reading book whose title I cannot even recall. Whether it was the epistolary structure or the relatable teen angst, I’m not sure. Regardless, that book drew me into the magic of literature. Since then I’ve found solace in the texture of a paperback in my hands, the sound of rain against the window, the comforting scent of fresh pages.

Maybe it’s because I started later than your typical “reader,” but I’ve noticed it takes me longer to read something than it does my peers in literary circles. When discussing common reading material with my fellow MFA candidates, they are often chapters ahead of me even though we received the books at the same time. A friend from college runs a “Bookstagram” account that reveals a new novel on average every two to three days. My mother, who still reads at bedtime every night, goes through approximately a book per week. As my personal to-be-read list grows – both figuratively as friends suggest titles to me and literally as I pick them up at Barnes and Noble and stack them in a haphazard pile on my TV stand – I feel more and more defeated.

So, if you’re a slow reader living in literary circles, feeling slightly inferior, what can you do to boost your own morale and avoid feelings of inadequacy?

Count minutes, not pages.

When sitting down to read something, decide on a time frame. Whether that time frame is twenty minutes of a lunch break or an hour of free time, measure the time you spend reading rather than setting a page goal. You will feel much better saying, “I spent forty-five minutes reading on my porch” than saying, “I only got through ten pages yesterday.” Frame it in a positive manner, because the truth is, reading is reading despite how many pages were turned.

Make sure you have the right book.

As a writer, I know that not all magazines are a good fit for the types of essays I write. I submitted the same piece to seven different magazines before it found a home, and that’s a small number when considering the vast, nebulous world of Submittable. The same is true for choosing a book. If you’re reading something, and you find yourself reading the same sentence again and again, maybe that’s not the book for you. Put it down for a while and try something else until you find a match that works. It’s important to know that not all books grab readers the same way; if they did, getting a manuscript published would be a lot easier.

Build a good reading environment.

Are you picturing an empty field of grass with a plaid picnic blanket and a light breeze? Maybe you’re imagining an aisle seat on an uncrowded flight, or a corner spot on the couch by the window. The best reading environments are different for different people. I personally need a place that is quiet, well-lit, and mostly free of distractions. Others may be able to read while a roommate watches Love is Blind or their husband snores in bed next to them. You know yourself best, so in order to read well, place yourself in an environment that suits your reading ability.

Try an audiobook.

As a lover of all things paperback, this one was hard for me to get behind. Then, a friend told me he was able to “read” all of Stephen King’s It in one month all because he played it every day during his commute to and from work. If you’re looking for a way to maximize your time and still engage with literature you love, an audiobook might be a worthy option. Amazon provides Prime members with an Audible free trial, and the subscription is $14.95/month afterwards. If finances are a consideration, many popular books are available for free on YouTube.

Own it.

This part is probably the hardest thing to do, but if you are a slow reader, own it. Admit that often times when you sit down to read and get through less pages than you would like, it bothers you. Then take that self-consciousness and throw it right out the window. Know that it’s okay if you were only able to read fifteen pages yesterday, that it’s taking you longer to comment on a workshop member’s submission, that even though your friends are raving about it, you just can’t get into that new YA novel. Whatever happens, don’t lose your love of reading. Don’t forget the feeling of accomplishment that spills out of you when you close a book, spin it in your hands, and breathe deeply, releasing a well-deserved sigh. Hold onto the love of literature deep within your gut. Keep turning pages, no matter how long it takes.
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Holly Hagman is a teacher and writer from a small town in New Jersey. She graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Teaching. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University where she is an assistant editor for Brevity and the nonfiction section editor for Causeway Lit. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Brevity blog, The Nightingale, and The Citron Review.

§ 8 Responses to On Being a Slow Reader in the Literary World

  • stacyeholden says:

    I read slowly too. (Unless it is a romance novel, which I will tear through!) As frustrating as I feel about that slowness, I I recognize my need to consume a book in its entirety. I read a paragraph slowly, think about the choices, the context of the time. I stop and google something I don’t understand. I wonder what was edited out. I wonder what Edith Wharton, my current literary guru, might have thought of this or that book.
    For me, there is joy in my own process of reading, though I suspect others would find it maddening. So, yes, I think I will take your advice and focus on time goals–I spent an hour with this book today–rather than page numbers.

  • mimijo3795 says:

    As a slow reader, you probably notice and absorb things that I blow right past. Years as an editor taught me to read fast, almost skimming. When I have loved a book (most recently Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man), I will often immediately reread it to truly appreciate all the things I might’ve missed in my rush to see “how it all turns out.”

  • Meg McGovern says:

    I am right there with you Holly. Your mom was a great reading role model. I tend to read “closely” like I teach my students, so it takes me longer. I do love the feeling of a book in my hand, but I have Audible for my walks and commuting. Sometimes I also have to give myself permission to stop everything else and read just for pleasure.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • jyvurentropy says:

    I’m a slow reader too. It’s not a competition though. We don’t need to feel self-conscious about it

  • Thank you, thank you! I am also a slow reader, though it’s one of the great joys of my life–to read and get to know the authors behind the books. I like to think of reading as developing meaningful friendships, which takes time. My favorite books are like my social circle–small in number but huge in significance!

  • I read slower than my spouse. However, over time i noticed that I retain much more of what I read. I catch details that my spouse misses. So I don’t have a pinch of inferiority when it comes to reading. I just read different, the way that suits me.

  • tapastango says:

    Being an editor/ writer in a marketing team, I tend to skim through pages a lot. I long for the luxury of slow reading when you can absorb every word and let it’s sounds swirl in your head and remember it a few days later. Fast reading makes me, at times, misread emails and that can be dangerous. Enjoy the slow reading and love it, Holly:)
    You write and describe the love of reading and holding a paperback in your hands and smelling the scent so vividly, it makes me want to pick up one as the rains happen here in Bangalore, India.

  • Fellow slow reader here. I take the audible route most of the time these days. When I have a hard or digital book, it can take FOREVER for me to get through it. Great article.

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