The Intensity of Slow Reading

“[…] the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall sleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe.”

—Virginia Woolf, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, The Second Common Reader, p.258

This weekend I read Renee Gladman’s Morelia, a short book, in an hour, followed by a couple of hours in the garden in contemplation. This ‘sitting with’ a book one has finished is perhaps the finest part of reading. I reread and think often of Woolf’s encouragement to attend properly to what we read. Slow reading needn’t always mean to read slowly, but to reread, reflect and allow a book to return as a thing rather than a resource.

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Anthony

Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

6 thoughts on “The Intensity of Slow Reading

  1. Nietzche described himself as both a slow reader and a slow writer, partly because of his training as a philologist:
    “Philology itself, perhaps, will not so hurriedly ‘get things done.’ It teaches how to read well, that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes. My patient friends, this book appeals only to perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!”

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  2. Studying with Theodore Kisiel, he suggested that a substantial hermeneutic reading of a text like “Being and Time” involved reading it at least three times. The first reading should be done as quickly as possible to get a sense of the whole. The second reading would be a slow reading looking at how the parts fit into the whole and how the argument hangs together to produce the whole. The third reading would be a quick reading again that would be wholly different from the first reading as you read the parts back into the whole. Of course this process could be reproduced ad infinitum as the text comes more and more clearly into focus.

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