The Luxury of Long, Slow Reads

On the internet, we hustle to meet our goals. We participate in the Goodreads challenge (we “promise” to read a self-imposed number of books  and Goodreads tracks our progress), learn the speed of our reading on Kindles (can we speed up?), and keep pace with innumerable book groups.

Sometimes we forget the luxury of long, slow reads.   My computer calendar pops up to dictate my reading progress, but not even the calendar gods could convince me to finish Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil.   Before the distractions of the internet, I would have slogged through it anyway because I expected less amusement. In those days I was able to finish War and Peace in a week and Trollope’s six-book Palliser series in six weeks.  I have reread these brilliant, unputdownable classics with pleasure, but now the experience is different because electronic devices split my attention and I tend to read multiple books in the same time period.  Pity the poor blogger who writes that he/she has given up long books because they get in the way of reviewing a set number of books at his/her blog.  That strikes me as very wrong.

And so I was very interested in Erin Bartnett’s article in Electric Literature, “Reading a Book Takes Time—Deal With It.”  She criticizes the start-up companies that tailor books to  your commute time.  She writes,

Serial Box turns the book into a quick, consumable, commute-sized commodity: each “episode” in the serial season is set up so it only takes about 40 minutes to read, in order to line up with the average back-and-forth commute time. As Molly Barton, one of the founders of Serial Box, told Vox: “I was aware that for many people, reading a book can feel rather slow and daunting compared to other media forms at this point. It’s harder to fit into your life.”

I say malarkey. You only have 40 minutes to read a book? Get a bookmark! Don’t worry — the book will still be there when you get back. Reading is supposed to be slow. And it’s okay if it’s daunting. Books take a long time to write, and the good ones deserve more than a morning commute time to fully digest and understand. Books also have the capacity to take you out of time and space and make you miss your subway stop, and that’s a good thing, too. The right story gives us permission to get lost when we need to. Indeed, Constance Grady reported the Serial Box books she’s read did not enchant: “I couldn’t lie on the beach and lose myself in it because it actively did not want me to do so.” Is our obsession with hurrying up getting in the way of our having fun?

Serial Box is an outrageous attack on the art of reading, and, yes, hurrying up does get in our way.   I agree with Bartnett:  get a bookmark!

The long read is still alive, I learned from Alex Clark’s brilliant essay in The Guardian, “I’m going back to Proust this August. The truly long read is a summer treat.”  She writes,

Another summer, and another assault on the unscaled mountains of literature. Having woefully failed at 2017’s attempt on Henry James, who fell foul of a sudden addiction to his sleuthier cousin PD, I’m once again preparing to tackle Proust, courtesy of a 50th birthday present of a beautiful boxed set of In Search of Lost Time. Thank God I shan’t be doing it alone, but in the company of novelist Susan Hill, who explained in last week’s Spectator Diary that, having got so far and no further on multiple previous occasions, she too was going back in. She is now on Book 5, and I salute her.

What a wonderful summer reading plan!

I declared the summer of 2018 my summer of science fiction but it has been the summer of Trollope and P. G. Wodehouse. And I wouldn’t trade this summer for my original plan.

Have you met your goals this summer?   Have you changed them?  And are you reading long or short?