Why We Need To Start Slow Reading

Christopher Fowler
It's the fault of that bloody woman, Marie Kondo, forcing us all to chuck out our stuff and live with the things that give us joy. 'Nobody needs more than 30 books,' she says. Hey Marie, I have news for you. I 'need' at least a couple of thousand books, okay? It used to be that I read everywhere. I walked around shedding books like a junkyard dog shed fleas. I'm with Stephen King on this; he said he balanced books to read while peeing. We've all been there. I didn't mind the stacks on every flat surface, the balancing act of getting a book to stay on the narrow lip of the bath, or dropping a heavy volume on my face because I'd fallen asleep reading it. It wasn't about what happened to the books after (I'm a profligate giver-away) but how much I could read. But then my reading-everywhere habit started to be curtailed. Living in an open-plan flat reduced my reading time because there's no escape from others watching TV, but the biggest loss was on the tube, which is now peppered with inane announcements, the worst if which is the 'See it, say it, sorted,' campaign that puts outdated slang into the mouths of plummy lady announcers. There are also jovial guards with endless warnings about stairs and platform edges that only a moron would need, and announcements that tell you not to panic just because the train has been held at a red signal for 10 seconds. Because I work at home I have no commute, and because I live in the city I walk everywhere, so I have to create my reading time. But much of that is now spent on my iPad because proper reading requires concentration, and I'm not sure I have it anymore. There are currently 200 novels sitting on my e-reader and another sixty or so lined up unread on my shelves. I'm reading Roy Porter's Social History of England alongside several odd collections of crime stories, I'm reading John Sutherland's 'The Wall' and 'The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt' and Kate Atkinson and Stanley Ellin and WW Jacobs and Rudyard Kipling and a book of essays by Gary Indiana and various volumes on Anglo-Saxon Britain for research purposes. I'm reading words but I'm not savouring atmosphere. I tried a couple of very well received rural period novels, 'The Gallows Pole' and 'His Bloody Project', and found to my shame that despite their obvious quality I could not finish either, and am at a loss to understand why. I think as the reader who was sitting on a Piccadilly line train, I failed to break through to the dense, poetic rural settings and properly appreciate what I was reading. I did not get into the moment because I could not lose myself in the books. I wonder if the attention-deficit me of today would have had the patience to read the Gormenghast trilogy that I devoured at seventeen? So I'm going to try slow reading - isolating myself in a particular spot, the same one every day, setting aside an hour (Hey, that's just the length of a cop show episode) and instead of galloping through as many chapters as possible, only allowing myself to read one or two chapters slowly. I'll take in sentence structures and properly enjoy the characters and dig down to the author's intentions, thinking carefully about what I'm reading. It could be the answer to enjoying and understanding more, and reading fewer novels in a longer time period. Instead of skimming descriptions I'll try to imagine them. Part of it will be learning not to panic about how many books we still have to read. Let's see if a little slow reading can cure my attention problem and make me enjoy a novel. Similar experiences here please.  


Jo W (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 08:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Love that saying,Christopher,about hoarding books. Must show it to 'imself.
I have always had a problem with noise distractions of any sort. Years ago, I had to sit in the kitchen, with the door closed,to do homework. ( No,I couldn't use my bedroom,it was far too cold.) I can't read if the tv is on and can only have music playing but no singing. My ears won't shut off.
I'll be on a train journey of an hour and a half later and will be hoping to read to pass the time,but not only will there be announcements but also other people, talking into 'phones or even to each other.
I've received some funny looks when I've tried sticking my fingers in my ears. Perhaps I should take earplugs with me?

Carl Clegg (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 09:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have a system of where I must read 'X' amount of chapters a day, where 'X' is the amount of books I have in my 'to read' pile. It works, in fact I usually find that I read more than I need to.

kevin (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 09:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Is the problem slowing down or finding a quiet place to read? I think slowness and quiet/silence go hand in hand and are essential for deep, immersive reading of any kind. In today's world it is really hard to find some place where there is little noise let alone silence. It drives me crazy. But when I do find quiet. me and a good piece of writing are one.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 10:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How many Marie Kondos do we need? Perhaps we have too many already.

Ken Mann (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 10:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I would like to pay tribute to the man on the Gatwick Express whose arch delivery of "see it, say it, etc" on the tannoy made it quite clear that his opinion of it matched ours.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 11:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Martin - wonderful!

On the other hand, thanks to folks 'de-cluttering', there are far more good books on the secondhand market. Not just books: an antique Royal Worcester porcelain bowl or a Stourbridge crystal one both cost less than a plastic flowerpot from the garden centre.

Sorry, back on topic. I can cope with some background noise. It's easier if I know that it's something I don't need to pay attention to, for example the TV and not LOML. I 'worked' in an open plan office for a while. The architect who came up with that idea should have been shot or strangled at birth.

SimonB (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 12:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm with Peter. We have just moved from one open-plan office to another, but the teams we are now co-located with are several orders of magnitude louder than our old neighbours and I am really struggling with the racket*.

Anyway, I'm also finding harder to find quality reading time without distractions. Some of these are self-engineered I guess, such as playing games on my phone or iPad when I would previously have been turning pages - but you have to notch up those bonuses for not missing a day! Most of my reading is done in bed these days, but even then the wife has her tablet and insists on showing me things in the news, inside houses for sale or pets to adopt that I really am not interested in. After all, we paid off the mortgage last week, just adopted a pre-owned cat and watch the news before we come to bed anyway. Mind you, I used to bring a book with me and read it at lunch, while now I look through blogs from authors...

I hope the experiment proves successful.

* Ironically, one of our new neighbour teams is responsible for libraries. They do have a couple of shelves of "retired" volumes for sale though, and this very morning I picked up a nearly new hardback copy of Film Freak for 10p.

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 15:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I read at least five books a week. Some, I keep. Others go to the Seaman's centre at my workplace. Thirty books? What sane person could get by on thirty books? There's an unsorted stack of 50+ behind my chair as I write this. Thirty books? I'd love to see this stupid de cluttered woman's ideal 30. At a guess, there would be Dan 'Scribbler' Brown, in there, and all the 'Twiglet' I'm sorry, I'll write that again; 'Twilight' (probably right the first time, looking at that: like Twiglets, they're kind of addictive, but once the Marmite hit has gone, there's no substance). Jeffery Archer for sure, and probably some money-grab hipster nothingness volumes. I think, personally, that there are far too many 'Scam the gullible' lifestyle rectums out there. Let's have ourselves a de-clutter. With, in some cases, a tiny hintette of extreme prejudice...

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 15:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Done it again. Read 'Series' after 'Twilight'. Sorry.

Ian Luck (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 15:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

So we should only surround ourselves with things that bring us joy, eh? Well, to a great many people, books bring endless joy, and they surround themselves with them, and so depriving them of their books, you are making them unhappy, so your pointless scheme is self defeating, you silly moo.

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 15:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Marie Kondo, graduate of women's christian university, description of her qualifications: "One day, I had a kind of nervous breakdown and fainted. I was unconscious for two hours. When I came to, I heard a mysterious voice, like some god of tidying telling me to look at my things more closely." Enough said...

Two decades ago, a commuter like Jo W, decided to fight back; she organized quiet cars (no mobiles, music or talking above a whisper) on intercity commuter trains. The idea spread to suburban train service in major cities. Unfortunately, quiet cars are now crowded by technology users trying to get away from other tech users.

With widely publicized Harvard U study, open plan office space may go out of fashion--none too soon. OS never fit the way teams actually work--it was just a way to save money.

Concentration: I worked w. cognitive psychologist to improve, matching work to environment (trains/planes are not good for reading; writing works better); using Pomodoro method (25-30 minutes concentration, then reward); finding good space outside home/office and most important--being strict about getting butt in chair with only technology needed for actual task.

Debra Matheney (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 18:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Books are joy and comfort. That Japanese woman just doesn't get it. Books rank right up there with husband, cats, friends as sources of pleasure. I recently retired and thought I would tackle things like Pepys diaries and Boswell's Life of Johnson. I read all of Boswell's journals as a teenager, but now I can't sustain any attention. First of all, if I miss cable news for more than an hour, Trump has pulled some foolhardy thing, which I think It is my civic duty to know about. Secondly, the whole digital thing robs me of concentration. I used to get totally absorbed in a book. Now, my mind wanders. Too many distractions but we must keep soldiering on and READ.

Denise (not verified) Thu, 24/01/2019 - 23:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I don't know what I would do without my books. I read about five a week. I am plowing through E.C.R. Lorac at the moment. I don't think I could survive on thirty books. What a horror! There's very little to watch on T.V. and I am happy curled up in a quilt with my books . Somehow, I ignore the outside world. I have been known to read while cooking, while waiting for something to brown.

Mike (not verified) Fri, 25/01/2019 - 03:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How did she arrive at 30 books?
Why not 29 or32?
It's not compulsory to obey her :-)
(unless you're one of the welded to phone hipster generation)

Christopher Fowler Fri, 25/01/2019 - 07:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Concentration is the key. My friend Joanne Harris says that when she was a teacher the worst time she had getting children to concentrate was when it was windy. I know which days I'll concentrate best, and on other days I might as well go walking because I know I won't settle. Clearing the mind is hard.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 25/01/2019 - 13:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Admin: Could it be that your brain/body need "other days" to have concentration days? Neuroscience research suggests.

Rich (not verified) Fri, 25/01/2019 - 19:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I seem to have the opposite problem/advantage. I read quickly but noise doesn't bother me. When I've got my head in a book the outside world disappears much to the irritation of my family who try to talk to me and get blanked because their voices haven't intruded on my consciousness A plague on these idiot decluttering gurus. You can never have too many books!

Helen Martin (not verified) Fri, 25/01/2019 - 22:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Like Jo, I had to do my homework in the kitchen but with no door to shut out the tv around a thin wall. I didn't seem to have any trouble shutting out the sound and all I had to do was pick up a book to disappear into the narrative, even in the living room with someone else watching tv. I still do it but a little carefully if I'm on the bus or train since I don't want to miss my stop. I read on the school bus, on the ferry to Vancouver, in the back of cars, in the bathroom, and while washing dishes (I had a book rack that sat on the window sill and a towel beside it so my hands were dry to turn the page.) It was as if I was trying to escape my real life, but I don't think it was, more that there are only so many lives you can live and the books give you so many more. We're both reading Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series, including the latest two and I suppose we'll have to go looking for the one coming out this year. We watched Trump's rose garden speech today and probably need another universe to make life easier.

gkbowood (not verified) Sat, 26/01/2019 - 02:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I wonder if the attention-deficit me of today would have had the patience to read the Gormenghast trilogy that I devoured at seventeen? --
I still have the three Gormenghast paper backs I read and raved about when I was 22...Now I have the trilogy on my Audible wish list.

gkbowood (not verified) Sat, 26/01/2019 - 04:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Okay, so I may have black balled my self out of the book club by that last admission, but I really enjoy the books I listen to, sometimes even more than the written ones- especially if the voice actor is spot on with the characterizations. Bryant and May read is always a fun read but I get so much more from the audio versions. Trouble is, that I have started double up on several of my favorite authors' works!

Jan (not verified) Sat, 26/01/2019 - 08:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A mate of mine who used to teach said exactly the same thing about getting kids to concentrate when its windy weather. Also that children tend to be more unruly and difficult on windy days. It made no difference to their energy levels probably improved them but made them uncontrollable.

I wonder why that should be so. That's interesting. I wonder if its essentially the same for adults but we don't recognise it so much in ourselves.

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 26/01/2019 - 21:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I taught for two years in Lytton, B.C. (yes, named for him) where the Fraser and Thompson Rivers meet. The mountains and canyons create funnels which bring strong winds through town. Windy days my classes were quite bouncy for sure and I can remember the principal making comments to kids coming in that they needn't bring the wind in with them. Our school was largely First Nation and was very quiet as a rule. The winds did change things.

Sarah Durston (not verified) Sun, 27/01/2019 - 12:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

For me, this is a seasonal thing. At the moment I'm edgy and can't settle so I'm reading 'easy' memoirs and contemplating rereading my 'comfort books'.
Anything requiring thought or analysis will need to wait until Spring.

John Griffin (not verified) Sun, 27/01/2019 - 20:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The wind spooking kids is fairly well accepted by most of we teachers....with not too much scientific evidence but shedloads of anecdote. Going all Darwin, high wind means abrupt weather change and potential danger, so perhaps (along with perpetual anxiety) 5 million years of evolution has hard-wired it into us all.