Confessions of a Slow Reader

Literology, The Little Literati / Sunday, September 15th, 2013

My twelve-year-old daughter is a fast reader. A suspiciously fast reader. She reads so fast that it makes me a suspicious mother: “You couldn’t have finished. Did you read the whole thing? Even this paragraph?” I pop quiz her to prove her supposed skimming insufficient, and I can never do it, which leads me to believe that she isn’t skimming at all. What would be skimming for me is reading–real, actual, word-for-word reading for her, and she gets it–completely and fully–even the first time. 

She is an anomaly, so I never include the example of her in my class lectures. For one, this one-read approach doesn’t work for most, so I teach a cold-read/warm-read approach to my students to encourage at least two passes through a work before commenting on it. And two, I’m jealous of her. 

I am a good reader, but I’m supposed to be. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and over the course of eleven years of college work, I earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate in literature–ahem, reading. Also, I am a writer, and I’ve become that by reading and studying all the books a library card can buy. I should be a good reader. I paid good money to other good readers to teach me to become one. Despite this, I will say that my daughter is, hands down and every day of the week, a better reader than I am, and I’ll confess that I’m not sure how she does it. 

All the rules we’re supposed to teach, she breaks. She can read in a loud and crowded room with no lighting in an uncomfortable chair while hungry and busy, and the book still seems to read itself to her. She can sneak in a page at a time and be able to tell you exactly the scene where she left off–and what she knows will happen next because she’s probably read the book five times before. If you ask her what she’s reading, she usually says several titles. She’s reading them all at once. 

I am a comparatively slow reader. Okay, not comparatively. I’m just a slow reader. I have to work to start and work to finish books. I get distracted, and I get impatient. I even get bored sometimes. It’s hard to keep my eyes on the page sometimes, or if my eyes are on the page, my mind won’t follow. Other times, my body works with my autopilot mind, and they believe they’re reading, and then my fingers follow their cue and begin to turn the page when a third part of me jolts awake wondering when we all paid attention last. As I flip back through the pages, looking for familiar territory, I get more and more frustrated at myself, wondering how it was possible to be present yet so completely unaware of my location. 

For someone like me who is considered to be a literate person, I have too many false starts. I have to read aloud to get started sometimes, at least for a few pages. I need to hear the voice–or I need to hear Morgan Freeman’s voice, and so I’ll imagine he’s reading to me. For some time after I watched Stranger Than Fiction, I heard Emma Thompson reading to me, which was lovely. Who doesn’t completely adore Emma Thompson? 

Surely, I’m not alone. Surely, there are others who keep British voices in their heads narrating in a precise formality because their natural inner reader is a gum-smacking, hair-brushing tween who can’t be trusted to finish a chapter. And surely, there are some of you whose eyes begin to burn at the sight of ink because a book is about the only thing that won’t cry or set the house on fire if you fall asleep instead of keeping watch over it. 

I’ve developed a “special set of skills” (insert Liam Neeson voice here) to cope with my grandmother-tortoise-covered-in-molasses reading speed. My key is to slow down even more. It sounds counterintuitive, and it is, but it’s the same tactic I teach for writing, and it fixes the brain block in so many marvelous ways. 

  • When possible, and especially for short passages, read them twice. The cold read happens first to see what the reading is about and what’s happening–in general. The warm read is for noticing and making sense of details. The second reading experience is the faster of the two, despite being the deeper of the two, because you have the context for those details.
  • Read with a pen in hand. I mark everything of potential import when I read: lines of dialogue, words I don’t know that I might need to learn, recurring themes and symbols, and the entrance and exit of characters. My heavy marking habit lends itself to better rereading, as well. I love going back for a second reading to see what I’d thought the first time around. 
  • Read aloud sometimes. As much as it is an adult life skill to be able to read silently without moving your lips, there is something very beautiful and engaging about reading aloud, whether to someone or to yourself. I am sure this is the poet in me, but I love the way reading aloud slows me down and forces me to dwell on each phrase and sentence. It keeps me from hurrying, keeps me from drifting, and keeps me present.
  • Read sitting up or standing up. I started reading the first book I fell in love with, The Catcher in the Rye, leaning against my bedroom closet door. By the end of the first chapter, I slid down the door and sat on the floor. I didn’t get up until I finished the whole thing. I wrote the whole last chapter of my dissertation standing at my kitchen counter with a laptop and the bright florescent lights shining on my notes. Location and movement matter. 
  • Stop reading in your leftover time. Give your best to get your best.

These tricks help. They really do. I’ve gotten to be faster at reading because I’ve tricked my body and my brain into being more focused, into being more present. I still know I’m not my daughter though. I’ve learned to tune out my personal bores, like football games and sci-fi movies, but I haven’t mastered being able to read in the middle of the night or under the table at a restaurant with a fork in the other hand because I just have to finish a book. 

I haven’t gotten into the habit of bringing a backup book light in case my first-string book light breaks or dies, and I don’t pack spare batteries for both for a worst case scenario. My purse carries one book at a time, not four, and I don’t have another five on the stand by my bed because I’m working on those, too. You are as likely to point out a book on my shelves that I have not read as those you will point out which I have read. Daina’s shelves are done: the books have been read, reread, and revered. They look new, but it’s because she guards their spines. 

I want to learn from her, but I’m afraid it’s something unteachable and tethered to her bones. The cells just keep on blooming and multiplying, and the words keep on calling her name. I want to hear them, but I’ve learned to stop studying and just marvel at the reader she’s become. 

I noticed a few months ago she stopped using bookmarks. “I don’t need them anymore,” she said. “I just know where I am.” 

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2 Replies to “Confessions of a Slow Reader”

  1. If I can come back for a second life, I want it to be in your family. I want to be Daina's twin. I want to peek in all your books and see what words you underlined because you didn't know them. I don't believe I will find any, but I will spend hours looking.

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