Rediscovering Slow Reading

Because as a child, it was wonderful.

This is a reflection on how I would consume content meticulously as a child. How I've changed to trying to gobble up things from a firehose. And most importantly, the bigger picture of something I learned about only today: "The slow movement"

Consuming slowly as a child

Something that not many people know about me is that I used to be into poetry. At the time I didn't know the basics of poetry construction. I would still spend hours deconstructing meaning, sometimes inserting my own into places where there was none. I'd apply the same to short stories, and books. One could argue that it was a waste of time. But it was my own hobby and it affected no one else. Looking back on it, I have no regrets.

This practice of reading and taking time to think about individual sentences and words was both peaceful, and educational. It was educational in the sense of the skills it gave me: critically and slowly dissecting something I just read. This carried on into my life after childhood where occasionally people would remark that I would extremely quiet during large conversations but would later jump in with a single question that would create lively debate.

I lost this quality over time. I regret that.

Today I read this wonderful short post on slow reading (via HackerNews and it made me remember what it was like to read slowly. It also made me reflect on what reading and life feels like today.

Accepting what I've become

Too often I'll pick up a book or some article and I can feel my eyes skim across lines skipping words like dolphins taking to the air in the sea. My brain is set to "gist mode" where all I care about is the "essentials". Part of that is a natural defense against clickbait articles but at some point I have to stop kidding myself. When I skim read an article like this one on financial fraud (guardian), then I have to accept that I have a problem.

Deep down, I know I am looking for the listicle form of points in there. I'm looking for the writer to "get to the point". I've started thinking that if the author of the article isn't opening up with the point, then that's bad writing. And in some cases it could be. If it's a story about a nuclear power plant suffering a melt down, I wouldn't want the important stuff buried away under a flowery 4 paragraph description of a worker's life. But even if it was written properly I'd still be skimming across lines to "get the essence".

And that's the problem. I'm so consumed by trying to find the point that I'm not taking the time to distill what I read. I think that's starting to numb my emotion towards what I read. I don't take time to feel anything. It's the equivalent of putting food in my mouth and swallowing without tasting. Or grabbing a cup of fresh juice and downing it in one massive gulp. I'm very guilty of the latter mind you.

This needs to change. And I think that change can come by recognising some of the bad habits I've picked up over the years.

  1. The volume of material I consume. These days the volume of material I try to cram in my head is far too large. Even if I read every word of it without skimming, I still wouldn't realistically have the time to process it. I'd just read the article and move on to the next. I would neither have the impact nor the memory of the article even because it would just be some words I read. Being mindful of the volume of content I'm consuming feels important. It wasn't in the past because I never had access to so much information. In today's world it feels like something to be deliberately mindful of.
    This comes with its own challenges though. How to pick things I want to read is also difficult. I don't want to read a title and make a choice based on that alone. I suppose some compromise will have to be made here where I skim an article to see what it's about and decide if I want to read it or not. Or maybe I surrender myself to luck. Some days I'll read good things. Other days I won't. But once I've reached what feels like the "right volume", I should stop.
  2. Multi tasking. This should be obvious. And it's not something I can credit myself with thinking of. People have been preaching the dangers of multitasking for years. I just haven't been listening closely enough. I feel like the medium of reading which happens on my PC or phone can play a big part in all of this. There's a lot of potential for interruptions. But I think the bigger problem is patience.
    I tend to open articles in break times. Maybe I'm going to the bathroom. Or maybe I'm outside of my son's playgroup waiting for him to come out. Or maybe I'm sitting outside somewhere waiting for a bus. That's the common theme here. Whenever I'm waiting for something to happen, I might replace waiting with consuming. This results in fragmented actions. As with the volume of material I consume, this wasn't a problem I could have ever had as a child. I didn't have access to an always available, always on, always connected to super fast internet medium. I got good at waiting because there was nothing else I could do. In today's context, being aware of when I unconsciously replace waiting with impatience feels essential.
  3. Not being intentionally meditative. Meditating is something I would do as a child. From the age of 15/16 I would spend 20 minutes a day quietly sifting and separating my thoughts. Negative and positive emotions. Gratitude and areas for change. High points and regrets. While I don't meditate anymore I feel like this has had a lasting impact on my want to introspect and not fear changing myself. It makes me want to reflect on a daily basis and I think this is an area to invest in more. It was easier to do as a child with no responsibilities. As a husband and father, I think it needs more deliberate care.

These are just to slow myself down and is only tangentially related to slow reading. Slow reading itself is an art. I used to practice it as a child and it would involve reading everything twice usually. Once to gain the essence of it in a single flow. And a second time to dive into the details of each paragraph, statement, or quote. This applied only sometimes to books although more often it would just be taking time to think about each chapter I read. I think this quote from a Hacker News comment matches how I would approach it perfectly:

She (commenter's girlfriend) would also be bewildered at watching me read. Sometimes I would read just a few pages, then put the book down then stare at the walls, absorbing what I'd just read. There was one part of "Kavalier and Klay" that was less than a dozen pages long, but took me two days to get through.

The bigger picture

One part of the post that triggered this reflection that caught my attention was a mention of something called the slow movement. What I found was an entire community, a sub culture if you will, dedicated to rediscovering the art of moving slow. This resonated with me so much. Just as much as I pull out my phone while waiting for something to come along, I'm also perfectly comfortable with forgetting about my device and just doing nothing while waiting. And I love those moments.

When my son had a little song and dance show at his playgroup, we had an option of taking him home an hour earlier than normal once it all ended. Or we could wait. And do nothing. I opted to wait. Most people didn't. Those that did were impatient and wanted to hurry back home. I see this all the time. When there are delays at a bank. Or a queue in a super market gets a little held up. People "tsk" and pace about and want for things to go faster. I often ruminate on this and call it "the lost art of doing nothing" in my head.

So what is the bigger picture here? When I really think about the slow movement, I know that just like reading, a lot of my life has entered the fast lane. And looking back on what I always wanted to be as a child and what I was most comfortable as, I think I may have just gotten caught up in everything without realising it. I'd like to go back to the slow life. I feel like that's a more honest representation of who I am.

What does this greater change look like? I don't know yet. And if I did, I feel like that would be contrary to everything about taking things slow. Even the three bad habits I mentioned above can't be magically solved through some "life hackery". Something as big as changing a way of life wasn't meant to have "solutions" in 30 seconds. In fact, I don't believe having a "solution" is part of taking things slow in the first place.

Like a crafstperson who takes care of their tools daily I believe this kind of change can only happen slowly.

With introspection and constant care.

Posted on July 05 2018 by Adnan Issadeen