Sunday, April 26, 2020

Off the Shelf: The Art of Slow Reading

There is just something about the uncertainty of this quarantine season. It makes me antsy to not have my regular schedule. True confessions: yesterday, I had to slip out of the house for a drive in the country. I found a quiet, shady spot to park and tried to read, but couldn't. This isolation gets my mind running on too many tracks all at once, and I can't concentrate.

After reading the same paragraph over the fourth or fifth time, the experience prompted me to remember a book I still need to read. Granted, I probably have a thousand books at home, still waiting to be read, so thinking of this one specific volume struck me as odd at first. After all, I do have a stack of books on my coffee table waiting to be finished, but this book is not among them.

One would think this time of isolation and unnerving quiet would be the perfect time to settle down in a cozy chair and get lost in a book. The past six weeks have been like a vacation of sorts. Enforced, but a vacation. And yet, I can't seem to avail myself of the treat of all this spare time. My eyes go over the words on the page, but never register any meaning in my mind.

It occurred to me that the only way to conquer that dilemma was to force myself to read slower. Now, keep in mind, I am by nature a slow reader. I long ago resisted the pressure to speed read, whether in college classes or in the work world. I wanted to absorb the author's meaning when I set aside the time to read his or her book. I see books as a conversation—mostly one-sided (other than the arguments raging in my head after a few pages), but a give and take between two people thinking about the same topic. Speed reading to get to the punch line is not the point in my book.

With yesterday's frustrating experience, it called me back to that home base of reading slowly, and I remembered that, years ago, I had spotted a book on a store shelf which was calling my name: Thomas Newkirk's The Art of Slow Reading. There was something about that title that resonated with me, and, opening the cover to peek inside, that hunch was amply supported. That was a book I had to buy and take home with me, if for nothing more than obtaining a philosophical trophy to point to: see, this is me; I am validated.

There are some situations in our life in which we recycle back to the same settings and realize that, although we've been that way before, we need to revisit it with fresh eyes. This time, in the spiraling cycle of history, we need to grasp both old and new. Pulling this same book down off the shelf again—my bookshelf, this time—will do me some good. Not only will it provide a reminder of how important it is to slow down and take in all the detail, the context, the nuance, but besides being an opportunity to revisit past remembrances, it will provide a nexus of old lessons and new circumstances. That juxtaposition will provide new insight and move me along a fresh pathway.

It is encouraging to see what fresh insight comes from revisiting old scripts. Old documents from our family history, quickly skimmed once long ago for preliminary confirmations, now revisited can reveal details overlooked in that first reading. Slowing down to gain a sense of just who these ancestors were—rather than simply to glean the quick grab of names, dates, and locations—helps us paint a more nuanced picture of their life stories.

Slowing down may make the job take longer, but it yields a richer, fuller context in the end. With an ominous sense of how impoverished we may be as we sink further into our isolation, that richer context gained may be just the uplifting antidote we need.

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