Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The benefits of reading slowly

Picture the scene. You’re curled up on your bed in your student house, wrapped in four blankets because it pains you to see the heating bill every month. You’ve chosen the 19th century novel module as in your eyes nothing compares to Oscar Wilde’s outrageous depiction of hedonism, or Lady Delacour’s hilariously scathing life advice to Belinda. You want to spend your evening deep in the rolling hills of Wessex countryside with Tess and Angel, and more than anything you want to cry your eyes out as *spoiler alert* Angel and little Liza Lu watch the black flag’s ascension at the end of the novel. What you don’t want to be doing is missing all the good bits of these classics because you have to skim read in preparation for tomorrow’s seminar.

But this is the unavoidable fate of an English Literature student, destined to taste the icing but not the cake of their favourite texts because, under the pressure of also reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Sophocles’ Antigone, we struggle to find the time that each text deserves to immerse ourselves in all its glory.

We can perhaps evade this rush to some extent by planning and reading in advance; but with all the societies and socials, napping and Netflix, you may ask yourself: why should I even bother to take the time to read slowly?

It’s true that almost nothing compares to the gratification of finishing a 500-page novel, but don’t kid yourself

It’s true that almost nothing compares to the gratification of finishing a 500-page novel, but don’t kid yourself. Have you really won the race if you’ve taken a shortcut? Not only are you cheating yourself of the true juicy core of the text, but you’re also very likely to miss subtle issues or even sometimes events. Skim reading to me feels like watching the first season of Game of Thrones, and never watching the final episode. You skip the best bits – and kind of miss the point.

There are reasons why texts like Shakespeare’s plays and Agatha Christie’s novels are timeless – because within almost every line and sentence is impressive attention to detail or implicit meaning that the skimming eye is likely to miss.

In Scott and Hardy’s novels in particular, it is not always the plot that is most captivating but the description of the setting and pastoral. Having said that, can you imagine if you had skim read the moment where Alec finds Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the forest? As if the reader doesn’t feel like the girl has suffered enough, it would be a crime in itself to let the injustice to Tess go by unaccounted for in the reader’s mind.

On the contrary, in cases of psychological terror, it is absolutely vital that the reader takes a slow approach to the text; I have read the line ‘You are the dead’ in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four slowly an uncountable amount of times, and it still makes my entrails feel like ice, let alone Winston’s.

Literature is art that the reader and audience should take time to appreciate

Whilst this is a prime example of shock and terror that requires the keen and observant reader to appreciate, creations of terror towards the confusing actions of men in a deranged mental state also require slow reading. Take Shakespeare’s Hamlet for example. Critics today still can’t agree as to why Hamlet does not kill his uncle upon the first opportunity. Hamlet gives the audience multiple reasons as to why he holds back – not believing the apparition of his father, deeming it unholy to kill his uncle whilst he is in prayer – all of which separately may seem believable to the fast reader, especially if they happen to have skimmed most of the other excuses Hamlet provides.

However, the slow reader, who takes note of every word that comes from Hamlet’s mouth, can see that list of excuses does not make sense in its entirety. Perhaps, as Ernest Jones suggests in ‘Hamlet Psychoanalysed’, the reason for Hamlet’s delay is instead a hesitation to kill the man who has done what he could only have dreamed of – killing his father to win first place I his mother’s affections. Shakespeare provides an unobvious and startling insight to the human psyche, as he does in most of his works, that the fast reader simply does not have the time to digest. Genius can be mistaken as incoherency and carelessness by the fast reader; the inner turmoil of the broken protagonist flies by unappreciated.

It is for this reason that I also believe slow reading is beneficial to society. Literature is art that the reader and audience should take time to appreciate, but it also nurtures sensibility within its readers, and encourages a sense of rationality. From Gatsby’s suffering we inherit a sense of pathos towards the dreamer but we also become conscious of the threat of dreaming without the grounding of reality; we’re humbled by rationality. In Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda we’re provided with a diatribe against romantic reading in childhood as it breeds too much sensibility without reason; and whilst I can’t say that I have read one of Belinda’s favourite moral or philosophical texts, I think the same encouragement of reason and rationality can be applied to reading slowly. Not only does reading slowly prevent readers from missing key concepts and allows an appreciation for true craftsmanship, but it allows us to take a second after digesting the content, breathe, and see what we can learn from our heroes and heroines.

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