by C.T. D’Alessandro

I’m a slow reader.

Not slow as in I-read-100-words-a-minute slow. I’m actually a terrifyingly fast when looked at in terms of word count (a consequence of a speed-reading class I took in 8th grade).

When I say I’m a slow reader, what I mean is that I actually sit with a book for a while, especially if it is a complex novel. I immerse myself in the literary landscape to get a real feel for the novel I’m reading. This is especially true of books with diverse settings or characters, in which the elements and issues involved require more of the reader than just good reading skills and a healthy dose of empathy, though these are extremely important also.  To really understand what I have in front of me, I try to find out as much as possible about the physical and cultural setting.

So why would I choose to be a slow reader, to spend so much time on any one novel, given how many books there are to read in the world?

I am aware that there are many of us who look at our TBR pile and despair at ever getting through it all. I would go further and say that my pile of unread book is the constant reminder of my mortality. No matter how wolfishly I read, even if I forgo all the other pleasures of life, I will never, ever get to the bottom of it. In the book, How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom states “You can read merely to pass the time, or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually, you will read against the clock.”

So, why do I take the slow route to reading some novels?  Here are some reasons below:

I want to discover something about myself. 

When I read the book The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, I saw myself in nearly every character in the book, from Richard Brown, the tortured, discarded son of Laura Brown, to the frustrated Virginia Woolf, who only wants to write, without the debilitation of her madness and her husband’s excessive care.  It gave voice to states that had felt unnatural to me otherwise – the desire for solitude, the suffocation of domesticity or the unmitigated love and optimism for the living world.

Sometimes a book speaks to you. Sometimes, a book gives you the vocabulary to talk about yourself.

That book also drove me to reread Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway , the novel to which The Hours responds.  I considered the literary excursion a natural extension of the novel’s universe.

I want to get lost in another person.

I will likely never visit Afghanistan. How, then, should I learn what it is like to be a woman in Afghan culture? When I first read A Thousand Splendid Suns, I became enraptured with the characters of Miriam and Laila. Many of their struggles were ones I could identify with just by virtue of being a woman, despite the diametric differences in circumstances and cultures.

This story led me to search for books on Afghan history and Persian mythology, with the purpose of understanding in a deeper way the protagonists I so strongly identified with.

I want to expose myself to beauty and understand how to create it

Sometimes, I just want to get lost in a book whose beauty is so haunting, I am driven to reread sections of it to enjoy the mastery of the writing craft. It is a question of learning. No matter how many workshop courses and writing books we consume, the best way to learn how to write is to read excellent books.  So if I want to study examples of economy of language, I reread Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  If I have a hankering for hypnotic sentences and magical realism, then A Hundred Years of Solitude will be my guide.  A recent book that I know will make the reread list is  The Vegetarian by Han Kang.  The voice of the narrator is a work of craftsmanship in its freshness and unique point of view.

There are so many other reasons why I take my time to read.  Sometimes, I want to sink into an epic story, whether of love or fantasy, so I research the setting and history in which it is situated, as in Outlander and go on my mental vacation.  I spent years reading and re-reading The Hunger Games trilogy because Katniss Everdeen was one of the most amazing characters I’d ever read and I wanted to uncover all the parallels and allusions of the world of Panem. This book was responsible for sending me into a reread of Far From The Madding Crowd simply because the author said she’d based Katniss Everdeen on the character of Bathsheba Everdeen. The Hunger Games trilogy is also the reason I ended up rereading Brave New World, because the same author claimed it as a thematic inspiration.

It’s like the difference between fast food and slow food.  I run to McDonald’s when I’m on the road and there is no chance of me eating well in a reasonable amount of time. Or I might just be in the mood for a milk shake.   Sometimes, I want to feel something easy and immediate, to admire a really good story without thinking too deeply about the universals. That’s when I’ll pick up an easy read and dig in, eating up the tale with relish.

But there are days when I want to shave my legs, style my hair and shape my eyebrows.  I want to put on my red dress with the only very expensive pair of Balenciaga stilettos I own.  My husband and I will go to a quaint Italian restaurant and spend the evening indulging in a finely prepared meal, in no hurry to relieve our babysitter of her duties.

Because there are books we gobble up like a Happy Meal. And there are books we lavish our attention on, spending long nights with them, savoring phrases and sentences, rereading the parts that make the common uncommon. If we are so inclined, we will search for the allusions to other books, art, music or time periods.  We go to our computers and read every review or criticism ever written. We will even hunt down the movie adaptations, if we can stand them.  We don’t just consume these books. We allow them to crawl inside of our living space and cohabitate with our spirits for as long as they wish to stay.

Not many books can be treated this way but when I really want that kind of experience, I don’t care that I am trading one magnificent read with ten lesser ones. I’ll indulge my itch for an adventure or a romance and be grateful. However, I will also  seek out that difficult pleasure, the one which, after I’ve given my energy to wrestling with it, leaves me with something invaluable that has enriched my existence. When this happens, I’m no longer daunted by the ever-growing pile of books to read or the diminishing time in which to read them.