Back to books: the joy of slow reading

Ten years ago, I typed the phrase “slow reading” into a web search engine. I found reports about dyslexia and eye disorders. In these cases, slow reading is understandably a problem and interventions can be helpful. Often, though, slowness in the pace of reading and thinking is desirable. Try the same web search today and it will yield more positive results. You will learn how slow reading cuts stress, improves comprehension, and increases empathy.

The last decade was a time of transformation for readers. Beyond the explosive growth of the web, Amazon introduced its first Kindle ebook reader. Ebook sales soared, outpacing print sales. Book stores closed or supplemented their book sales with gifts and electronics. Intellectuals debated the merits of e-reading and the adverse impact on our brains and social lives.

The transformation and debate have settled. When I first queried the web about slow reading, it was a small act of resistance against information overload; today, I am adept at web searching and filtering. I was an early adopter of the Kindle. It is convenient to download and carry a library on a small device. E-ink is easy on the eyes. Backlighting lets me read at night. There are arguable downsides. I find it creepy that books are tracking how far and fast I read. Books are shorter. My attention span is, too, I admit. Our brains are “plastic”, they are malleable. They have adapted to the new technologies, and in many ways, the change is a good thing.

Not all text deserves slow reading. Reading online, I scan in high mental gear, whizzing from one link to the next. Scanning serves to review high volumes of content, much of which is not worth my attention. A laptop browser is not the best for pleasure reading. An e-reader feels more bookish. It is tapered to feel like a paperback. My hand begins a reading by opening a cover and finishes by closing it again. The pages turn with a touch. It is good for the kind of reading in which I scroll from beginning to end without interruption. It is good for a summer read, not demanding slow or reflective thought.

Halfway through the decade, ebook sales plateaued. Print sales stabilised. How does that square with the enthusiasm for ebooks? The Kindle clearly represents a leap in reading technology. It took 40 years from when the first ebook was written for the e-reader to make its breakthrough.

The print book has been around for 2,000 years with good reason. We are not born to read, it takes years to learn. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of evolution of the written language and reading technologies, now finely tuned to the brain. The reader who attempts a book of art or a complex text on an e-reader feels phantom pain. Our fingers ache to flip the pages, back to the cover and tables. The print book gives instant access to any point in a work, our finger serving as a bookmark. We brush the pages, estimating how much reading remains. Slow reading is a physical act best suited to the book.

Digital technology has given us more text than we can ever read. We read incessantly in fragments on multiple devices. No doubt we will continue to evolve our reading technologies. There is a limit to how fast our eyes can move across text. A person can only read about 5,000 books in a lifetime.

Before the invention of the printing press, a family might have owned a Bible, maybe a few other books. Reading was a sacred, meditative act, shared with others. We can choose to select fewer books for reading. We can read more deeply. We can take time to read aloud together. This choice removes the needless pressure from reading, and restores it as a pleasure.