If you enjoy reading books, articles, websites, or encyclopedias, like I do, you are probably familiar with that quiet feeling of dread that takes possession of us from time to time, when we realize we can’t remember the title of that book we’ve recently read, let alone what it was all about. Of course, it would be a dull affair if we remembered 100% of all we had read — we would be just quote-dispensing automatons — but doesn’t every one of us want to remember the cream of our reading, and to assimilate the knowledge and the wisdom in books in a way that enables us to put it to good use in everyday life?
I find that reading slowly helps. In our day and age there’s a lot of talk about speed reading, but that’s not my cup of tea. I consider each new read as a meeting or talk with a new friend (or an old one I haven’t seen in a while, if I know the author), and so I try to listen carefully to what he or she has to say. By slowly I mean that I try not to read more than a novella a week, and that I give a novel two weeks, which I think is quite slow for a writer. Sometimes I read just one short story a day. At the same time, however, while preparing meals or doing house chores, I listen to an audiobook.
“Confucius said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
What helps with the assimilation of reading material even more than slow, careful reading is to either put in practice what you read, or be open to new perceptions and experiences and gather new memories. For many years I have lived withdrawn, and I remember that during those times I had quite a bit of trouble visualizing descriptive paragraphs. Living in a city and not having traveled much, I did not have enough memories and images of landscapes for my mind to retrieve during the reading process. Now that I am going out more, photographing the world, and have also made a habit of watching films in which the setting is important, I find it easier to visualize those extensive descriptions.
The sheer number of books available both in print and digital formats, and the abundance of online content out there encourages those of us who have a passion for reading to read fast, in order to cover as much ground as we can. I think there is a danger in that, the danger to consume the words without the mindful awareness that a deep understanding of the text requires.
Even for the slowest of us, life is fast in this century. But I don’t think that reading has to be fast just because everything else is fast. I can understand why speed reading is useful for many people in many contexts, and may everyone who needs it make the most of it. But those of us without reading deadlines, we can savor our books and get more out of them by reading them one word at a time. When it’s slow, reading can be, much like sex I suppose, more substantial and profound and, above all, more enjoyable.
In the end, let us remember at least what someone wise once said:
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson