April 20, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsLiteratureReadingShort Takes/Mixed Tape

On Slow Reading, Considering, and Consuming

It’s long been understood that going to an art museum doesn’t necessarily mean one desires to look at art, at least not for prolonged, potentially edifying periods. Articles like Artnet’s recent April 2019  “The Average Person Spends 27 Seconds Looking at a Work of Art. Now, 166 Museums Are Joining Forces to Ask You to Slow Down” bear strong resemblances to only slightly less recent ones like the New York TimesOctober 2014 piece “The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum,” complete with NY Times author Stephanie Rosenbloom’s assertion that “Most people want to enjoy a museum, not conquer it. Yet the average visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art, according to museum researchers. And the breathless pace of life in our Instagram age conspires to make that feel normal.”

With so much in the world, we invariably feel a compulsion to see more of it, regardless of whether we’ve fully and completely seen any one thing (or things) in the first place. More is more and time is now. That’s all fine and good in my opinion, and reading “The Average Person Spends 27 Seconds Looking at a Work of Art…” last week made me think less about visual art and, perhaps strangely, more about my own reading habits. Instilled in me by my mother, I’ve always had a love for reading and when I started to do so more widely in middle and high school I, in my admittedly fogged recollection, seemed to go through books at a torrid pace, two to three a week. Most of these tomes were pretty standard stuff (Salinger, Kerouac, etc.) for someone young and just recently out of Goosebumps and A Wrinkle in Time territory. Fully immersed, though, I read each book fast and near-fanatically. Loving to read wasn’t exactly cool where and with whom I grew up—Reno, NV; first I was a pseudo-jock, then I was a skater—but it also wasn’t something I was embarrassed of either, and I was further proud of how quickly I could lock into a book and then finish it within a matter of days or, sometimes, hours.

I had more time back then, to be sure, but as I grew older, early twenties segueing into my late twenties, my predilection for reading fast and thoroughly continued. Always there was so much out there, and I tried to keep up one word, sentence, and book at a time.

Tried to keep up until I didn’t, that is. Around the starting point of my thirties (I’m 35 now) I began to read actual books less and instead began reading about actual books more. I spent all of my twenties in higher education, and upon coming out the other end I suddenly (and unconsciously) grasped the fact that reading takes time, too much of it, and instead reading well-written reviews and online treatises about books that one wishes they could actually read is far more efficient. Enjoying Anne Carson’s work, I thus read a lot about how great Anne Carson’s work was without consulting any of said greatness directly. I read the reviews and critiques in The New Yorker or the New York Times or Harper’s and, feeling like I had some tenuous grasp on what the new Carson (or whomever) book consisted of/was about, didn’t bother to go any further than that. Time takes time, and it seemed that I didn’t have nearly as much of it as I once did.

This façade-of-immersion lasted for quite a while, and it’s only in the past six months that I canceled my subscriptions to the above magazines (only keeping the Times one because I couldn’t bear the thought of not having a chance to disagree with Ross Douthat on a regular basis) and embarked on an effort to read instead of read about what I wasn’t going to read. This intent has proved fruitful, and primary texts have since abounded in my life, but it’s also brought to the forefront a thing that I wasn’t as aware of as I might have been, namely that in contrast to my younger self I read literature (specifically poems, essays, and novels) really, really slowly. And in my dotage, the more I like something the longer it takes me to finish. I’m averaging three pages a night of Watt by Samuel Beckett, The Awful Truth by Diana Hamilton took me a year and a half to complete, at an average of a page or so a day, and Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome might never be finished, at least not at the current rate I’m snailing through. Other books, some of which I like just as much as the above ones, others which I like less, have taken me a shorter amount of time, but still far longer than my 14 or 22-year old self would have ever imagined.

“[T]he intentional reduction in the speed of reading, carried out to increase comprehension or pleasure” is how the (extremely short) “Slow Reading” Wikipedia page defines it and although sometimes I choose to slow read—Beckett’s my favorite writer and I’m also partial to Hamilton and Beard’s work—other times the opposite is true; my comprehension skills aren’t on high alert, nor am I immersed in pleasure, word by sentence by paragraph. I’m just reading really slowly.

Why is this? I have a number of theories, but the one that crevices most deeply in my mind is simply that reading isn’t as pleasurable for me as it once was and my mind is telling me that with each haltingly rendered syllable. Or, alternately, that my years of not reading the book but instead constantly reading about the book have engendered some type of wedge in my mind, one involving the holiness of the primary text, a holiness that must be approached and captured with the utmost precision, caution.

That all being said, perhaps it’s just that with so many other responsibilities and concerns to consider, I can’t concentrate the way my younger self could. Looking at a painting at the age of eight is very different than looking at the same painting at the age of 38 or 55, and the same holds for reading—the words are the same, but the book is very different. We’re supposed to look for longer, but what happens if the longer one stares the less they see? So the next painting beckons and we shuffle off with nothing in our heads but ourselves, full, uncertain.