Slow Reading

I have a small bookshelf for a night stand. There I keep a handful of books that are my favorites and that I read over and over. I am very much a proponent of slow reading.

They are books that I read ever so slowly while lying in bed at night. Sometimes just a page or two before it falls out of my hand and bops me on the nose as I drift off to sleep. Then it gets put away until tomorrow night and the lamp is snapped off.

I liken this slow reading to sipping a cup of coffee on the deck, savoring the taste and the moment. Or letting a slice of Swiss chocolate melt on my tongue as I eat it. There is something special going on here and we should be in the moment, being present to it, being mindful.

Some people strive for quantity in their reading, wolfing down one to two books a week, like they are gulping their coffee on the run or chomping down their chocolate in two bites. It’s almost as if they see reading as competition, racing to the finish line.

I do understand that, for many people, reading is a form of pure entertainment, like television. C likes mysteries and is a voracious reader of murder stories. She calls them her “brain candy”. But I believe much can be said for taking it slowly and allowing the writer to speak to us as broadly and deeply as she can. I have often found myself getting emotional not only by what an author has said, but by the way she has said it. I don’t often catch those sorts of things if I am jogging past them, turning the pages and cruising along.

Also, re-reading brings great rewards as well. Hamlet was very sympathetic when I was 18, but he got on my nerves by the time I was 38; by age 50, I found him sympathetic again, but for different reasons than when I was 18.

When I read a book I’ve purchased, I initial the title page in the corner and include the month/year I read it so I can keep track of my chronology of reading that particular work. I think about the last time I read it, what I may have thought about it then and what new discoveries I find in my latest reading. I have some books that I have read some dozen times or more over the past 30 to 40 years. It is surprising that to me how mediocre some of my once favorite books are today, or how good other formerly so-so books have become.

I have found myself going over passages that are particularly moving or thought-provoking to me. I will linger on a page or ponder over a passage, wondering why it has affected me so or left me breathless with its brilliance. Only slow reading allows me to experience it.

Carlyle said that the best university is a collection of good books. (He did not say a lot of books, just good books.) Teddy Roosevelt said that Lincoln, one our greatest presidents, only knew one book truly well, but Lincoln had the good sense to make that one book the Bible. (I would add Shakespeare to Lincoln’s library of well-understood literature, though.) Carlyle and Lincoln could be called slow readers in my estimation, and they were the better for it.

Lately, I’ve been doing that which I once thought inconceivable – I am getting rid of many of my other books.

In downsizing our life here at Windy Hill, C and I are jettisoning many of our possessions. Of the many things that we have hoarded over the years, books are at the top of the list. Boxes of books are stacked in closets and in corners of the spare bedrooms. As we open these boxes and realize that we have not missed these books in some time, let alone read them, we have been asking ourselves, “Why do we keep these?” At one time, the answer was simple: because they are books! Books are held in high esteem in our household. and sit at the top of our possession hierarchy – the aristocracy of personal possessions.

But today? I literally hold much of the world’s literature in my pocket with my cell phone, accessible by the browser. I also have an e-reader which is capable of holding 1500 volumes. And that double volume of Shelly’s Complete Works I found at the bottom of a box? Can I finally admit that they have sat in the closet for ten years, that I can access Shelly for free any time I want to on my phone, and…well, I really don’t care much for Shelly anyway?

So, along with dozens and dozens of other books squirreled away in the house, they are off to Goodwill or the Book Fair. My little collection on my shelf nightstand is sacrosanct, though. They stay. They will continue to be read.  Slowly.

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