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It seems to me that often, when people talk about how much they read, they make a point to note how fast they can polish off a book. When the Harry Potter books came out, people got the most bragging rights for whizzing through a 400- or 600- or 700-page book in less than a day. Other times, friends use speed to try to convince me to take their recommendation.

“It’s such a quick read,” they say. “I finished it in a day. You’d probably finish it in a half hour.”

I’m no exception here. I do take some pride in the fact that I read fast (about 2-3 times the average adult pace). I can comfortably read 100-150 pages a day if I don’t have too many other obligations.

The problem is that sometimes we readers get so wrapped up in our own reading stats that I feel like we miss the point. Yes, there are thousands of books out there, and it can feel like we’ll never get the time to read everything we want to, but I checked out a new book a few weeks ago and only realized later that I’d read it before, and didn’t remember anything beyond the introduction.

My professors in the MFA program advocate a different approach: read widely, and often, but read slowly. Break away from the urge to devour a book and try to savor it. Let yourself read paragraphs over and over to figure out what it is about this set of words that makes the characters and emotions so wonderful. Stop. Reading. Fast.

It’s not easy. Like many others, I’ve got a competitive streak, and my impulse is to push my own limits. Plus, I’m reading a self-help book by this really insufferable man who claims to be able to speed-read 1,300 words a minute, and I bristle to think someone I can’t stand can finish more books than me.

Reading slowly, though, captures what reading is about. In the ideal scenario of curling up with a cup of tea, a fire, and thick book, do you imagine reading at a frenzied pace, fingers constantly itching to turn the next page? Or do you envision something more luxurious–reading particularly elegant sentences aloud to yourself, pausing for a few moments to form your own guesses about what will happen next? Reading slowly gives you more chance to befriend the author and make the story your own.

If you’re interested in writing, reading slowly becomes even more important. The ubiquitous advice to read is based on the assumption that writer/readers will pay attention to the structure of the story. That means reading closely enough to recognize what makes dialogue effective, what changes in style make a passage elegant or suspenseful or terrifying or romantic. You have to be in deep enough to see the abstract, fictional story and the concrete words and grammar simultaneously. You can’t do that when you’re speed-reading.

Anyone else share my struggle? Do you notice a change in quality of reading depending on how fast or slow you read?

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