Vietnam -(Pixabay)

The Art of Slow Reading

When I was a kid I read an article in a magazine written by a Vietnam veteran who spent a couple of years in a North Vietnamese POW camp. The article really impacted me; so much so that I still think about it now a half century later. The article was about the art of slow (very slow) reading.

Being corralled into a small enclosure like livestock with ten or twelve other men, there was very little to do but think and go crazy. Then one day a compassionate North Vietnamese guard gave the men a paperback book which he had confiscated from a G. I. It was a thick American classic by Faulkner or maybe Steinbeck. I don’t remember.

The men were excited by this because it gave them something to do (read!). Instead of fighting over the book the men devised a way to share it. Each day the book would be passed around to each man who was allowed to read just one page. They could take as long as they want to read that one page — they could even read it twice — but that one page was all they could read.

At the end of the day everyone had read that one page and they would discuss it. The next day everyone would read the next page. It took the men over a year to read the book this way!

The article writer wrote about how the most exciting part of his day was when he had that book reading that one page. He savored every word, every comma, every period, every bit of dialogue, every turn of phrase, every subtle nuance, every hidden irony, every description, every ounce of humor. He read as slowly as he could in order to get as much enjoyment as he possibly could from that book.

Before that paperback book showed up he had fallen into a deep depression but the book eventually pulled him out of it. The book was something he began looking forward to each day when he woke up. It was something to live for and since he had no idea how long he would be in that POW camp he wanted to make that book last as long as possible.

That is when he discovered the supreme joy of Slow Reading. When he was finally released and returned to America (at this time the men were into their second reading of the book) he kept reading very, very slowly. He kept savoring every little thing about what he read. He immersed himself while reading and allowed no distractions.

Nowadays in the age of ‘smart’ phones and multi-tasking and the unwavering push for productivity he would be considered an idiot.

And now for a quick story about the very opposite kind of reading from what that soldier talked about…

About fifteen years or so ago a novel I had written had just been published and I was in the process of promotion. I set up a book-signing at a nearby bookstore, I set up a radio interview with the local radio station for the morning before the book-signing and I gave a copy of the book to the woman who wrote book reviews for the local newspaper. (By the way, if you’re one of those writers who is trying to become a millionaire through your writing these are things that can be very helpful.)

I happened to know the woman who agreed to review my book. We were both reviewers. We both wrote book reviews — hers appeared in the newspaper, mine on-line. We also both wrote theatrical reviews of plays and musicals — hers for the newspaper and mine for a website that had hired me. For years on many a final dress rehearsal before opening night she and I sat in the empty theater watching the play in order to write our reviews and get them published before opening night the next evening.

I had read a lot of her reviews and to be honest I really did not care for her writing much. But she had a ‘Ph.D.’ after her name and she was considered one of the area’s top writers. If I wanted a review of my new book in the paper before the scheduled book-signing I needed to call in a favor from her.

Well, in the morning newspaper the day of the book-signing her review of my book appeared. I read it and was utterly flabbergasted. Overall it was a very positive review but upon reading it I realized that she obviously never read the book.

I snickered at the ‘Ph.D.’ after her name on her office door when I went to talk to her about the review. Straight out, I asked, “Did you even read my book?”

“Of course I did.”

I had a copy of the book and a copy of her review in one hand, “In your review you stated that the book took place in South America!”


“It takes place in Central Asia! That becomes obvious in the very first chapter when the king travels to neighboring Tibet to seek advice from a holy man. Tibet is in Asia, not South America! Then there’s numerous mentions of Bactrian camels, the two-humped camels that are native to Central Asia, not South America. Then there’s…”

“Oh my, I’m not sure how I missed that. I’m so sorry.”

“You also refer to the ending of my book as a cliff-hanger. Both of the two main characters die! There is no more final an ending than that. There was no cliff-hanging.”

“They both died? Really?”

I slapped the palm of my hand to my forehead, “I thought you said you read the book?”

She leaned back in her chair as she crossed her arms over her chest. She began speaking condescendingly, “Yes, I did read it. I speed-read it. It took me about five minutes. Many years ago I took a course in speed-reading. How do you think I got my Ph.D.? I didn’t have time to read all those textbooks. After learning the art of speed-reading I was able to read an entire college textbook in under twenty minutes.”

“I write over twenty book reviews a month. I don’t have time to actually read those books! So I speed-read them. That way I can usually read them in five to eight minutes. I then glean information from the blurb on the back cover. I keep everything positive and quickly write an assessment of what the book is about — and by the way I never got what your novel is about.”

“That’s because you never read it! Look,” I showed her the blurb on the back cover of my book, “here is the word, Tibet, and here are the words, Central Asia. You not only just skimmed the book but you skimmed — speed-read — the blurb.”

She uncrossed her arms and leaned further in, “Listen, you wanted a review and I gave you a review. I don’t have time to read your damn book. When I read a book I don’t care about the details. The only reason to even read a book is to get to the point of the book — and get to it as quickly as I can. If you ever hope to be successful as a writer you’d better learn how to read as quickly as you can.

I slapped my forehead again then left her office.

That was the day I quit writing reviews — both book reviews and theatrical reviews. I haven’t written one since. I’m a writer not a reviewer, I thought to myself. I did NOT want to be like her. I did not want to read and write as quickly as I could in order to earn a buck.

That day was also the last day I ever read a book review. Why do people need to know someone else’s opinion before picking up a book? I don’t. I have a brain. I can decide for myself if a book is good or not. I don’t need someone else telling me if I should enjoy a book or not and I don’t want to start a book with someone else’ opinions clouding my reading experience.

The best way to decide whether or not to read a book is to go to the bookstore, find the book, then with eyes closed hold the book in your hands, the palm of one hand at the back of the book and the other palm at the front. Keep your eyes closed and empty your noggin of ALL thinking. FEEL the vibes coming from the book. FEEL if the vibes resonate with you.

If the vibes resonate then buy the book and take it home with you. Make sure there is no TV on or music playing or any other distractions then get into your favorite comfy chair and read the book VERY SLOWLY in order to derive maximum joy from it — rather than just skimming it in order to quickly get to the ‘punchline.’

The world is a very different place now than it was back in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960s. Nowadays reading is done WHILE we are doing something else. We read while sitting on the toilet. We read while watching TV. We read in those brief snippets of time at the office when no one is looking. We read while we sit in our car at a red light waiting for the light to turn green.

And sadly, we read on the ‘smart’ phones that have become permanently attached to our hands. Our reading is constantly interrupted by phone calls, text message alerts, tweets, batteries going dead, and ads. Our necks are becoming permanently fixed in a downward-facing direction as we read on our ‘smart’ phones during a four-minute subway ride or while walking down a hallway or walking down a street or while waiting to reach your floor while on an elevator. Since we have relegated reading to short snippets of time between or during other tasks it has become necessary to read as fast as we possibly can.

I want to say that everyone needs to spend some time in a Vietcong POW camp but then I realize that everyone is already in a POW camp; prisoners to their ‘smart’ phones and lives where they must be constantly productive every single minute of the day and where everything must be done as quickly as possible.

Whatever camp we are a prisoner to our lives can become so much more joyful if we would learn and cultivate the art of SLOW READING.

Give it a try.

Copyright by White Feather. All Rights Reserved.
Articles by White Feather

Speaking of reading…

Earthling — Lifelong novelist & essayist —

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