On Reading Fast or Reading Slowly, Forgetting or Remembering

girl or woman reading in the bath
Mulher lendo no banho by Peregrina Cultural on Flickr

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 For many years I have lived withdrawn, and I remember that during those times I had quite a bit of trouble visualizing descriptive paragraphs.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.

Cone of learning by Edgar Dale

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


Fast or Slow, Forgetful or Retentive? What Kind of Reader Are You?

34 thoughts on “On Reading Fast or Reading Slowly, Forgetting or Remembering

  1. Fast. But I’m thinking of slowing down a bit. I also turn too fast from one reading to another. It’s true that if I don’t process and meditate on what I read, I will remember very little. But I am fully present in the act of reading so maybe that makes up for it. However, I don’t think it’s only about assimilating information, but also about how what you read makes you feel at that moment.

  2. I like reading slow some times as well….. It sweeps me off into the book. I feel like a character. I feel what one feels and, I can hardly forget especially for romances….for they drive me first. I want to put one down and grab like another.Like six in a row… Then I begin mixing up them titles and plots.. Though books like the the Da’ Vinci Code, a sci-fi or a detective take me a lot more than slow reading yet they keep me pinned to the ground I can keep my eyes.

  3. Great quotes, and I completely agree. I don’t remember all of the books that I’ve read and there’s a lot! But they have made me ME! Very inspirational:)

  4. Lately I’ve felt so distanced from reading, I almost feel guilty if I turn to a novel and away from a textbook about Russian History or something similar.. I hope this is just a blip. I really enjoyed this post, and your style of writing. It’s real.

      1. Oh yes just not as much as i should. books are an escape from the pain of the day., i usually stay up until the sun has long vanished before i finally put down the story.

  5. I’m a very slow reader but I enjoy it that way. I’ve tried to speed myself up but it feels pressured and unnatural. I will concentrate too much on reading fast and completely miss what the words are saying.

  6. I am very easily pleased, and when I like something I read it quickly. But I find that after reading the next book, the contents of the previous book has vanished from my memory!

    1. So true!

      I tend to read fast when I discover an unputdownable book. Usually these books erase the outside world and I don’t realise how fast I’m reading because I don’t look at the clock.

      I only do that with boring books.

      Thought-provoking post!

  7. I am slow too as I also want take it in when I find the book important. I have been occupied with the writer Primo Levi for more than 6 months trying to let it sink in. He was a Holocaust survivor and wrote in a way I will never forget

  8. I am a slow reader. I like to take the time to imagine what I read, ponder how the characters are interpreting the situation, and interpret what the author has put on the page. At night, I lie awake thinking about the stories and universes. I taste the words on my lips.

    That being said, I also usually read multiple books at a time. Unless I become obsessive to an unhealthy level, (unless I “binge,”) I can’t seem to read just one book. I think it helps me enjoy the books more when I read others too; it refreshes my mind.

  9. I like to savour every word, sentence, paragraph… But recently I had to skip whole passages of a book, and I became angry, because there were snatches of jewels within that I didn’t want to miss out on, yet the voice was so authentic that I couldn’t stand it…like reading in a foreign dialect. And the worst thing was that it was set in a country region where I grew up: A strange experience. I still don’t understand it.

  10. I am fast and retentive most times on books out of my course, but, this post is helpful because its a way out in improving my course study.

  11. I read in a moderate pace.I love novels , short stories and encyclopedias.Reading is my favorite activity.

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