What we will all gain from reading slowly in 2023

On the first day of this semester, in my first class of the day, we were asked to go around the room and do an icebreaker activity. Nothing revolutionary. Such is to be expected on syllabus day. But instead of introducing ourselves by our name and favorite candy — deliciously boring — or our name and an “interesting fact” — a barrage of canned responses — or our name and major — simply uncreative — we had to introduce ourselves by our name and one thing we miss from childhood.
I was not surprised when almost half the class answered that they missed reading for pleasure. That was my answer, too. But it’s possible that’s just an English student phenomenon — so I took to The Campus’ Instagram story, where I heard similar sentiments. About 90% of respondents wish they had more time for pleasure reading. It seems like all of us sorely miss that time we used to spend curled up with a book.
As I wrote last week, our lives are inundated with distractions — voluntary and involuntary — that pack every day to the brim with endless stimulation. The sustained solitude, quiet and concentration that reading demands is the very antithesis of the age we live in, and it’s a lot easier to fall out of the habit than to fall back into it.
In talking to the people in my class and around campus, it’s clear that most of us miss reading for pleasure because all we do right now is read for work.
Allegheny prides itself on being a rigorous campus. But we have to think about how we define rigor. In most classrooms here, unfortunately, our definition is sorely off-base. We think of it as a question of speed over substance and quantity over quality. Professors whir through rotes of discussion questions and sagging syllabi to give the impression of busyness, or worse, importance. The more we do and the faster we do it, the more intellectually capable we must be.
I have been in classes where I’ve had to read a third of a substantial book between Tuesday and Thursday. Multiply that by two or three other courses with similar homework expectations, add in another class meeting and a shift at work, and my Wednesday is not only packed — it’s as good as gone. There’s time for the gym if I push myself. Nothing more.
In the past four years I’ve concluded that, if this is what my life looks like, speed-reading included, then at least half of my fellow students in every class are lying through their teeth about the amount of the reading they’ve actually done — if any. I don’t blame them one bit; even at my pace, there have been days or weeks where I’ve had to bank on SparkNotes and skimming to get through class discussions. There have been days and weeks where there just was not enough time to do all my work, let alone have a life outside of it.
I’ve also noticed over the past four years that professors have become increasingly candid about their work-life boundaries, perhaps due to the bleeding of such boundaries during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Email signatures now outline projected response times. Syllabi announce that emails will go unread over the weekend and after 6 p.m. In light of the focus crisis I wrote about last week, this seems like a step in the right direction toward eliminating some of those involuntary distractions in our lives. I’m glad that people are taking this demarcation seriously, that they are demanding their time be respected.
The same, unfortunately, can rarely be said of students, who remain buried under stacks of books morning, noon and night and ultimately forsake the pleasure reading they so desperately crave for the chance to give their brains a break from the paradoxically speedy-yet-deep concentration demanded of them by four classes simultaneously. In doing so, we send a message: namely, “You’ll sleep when you graduate, kid. Your time belongs to me. Suck it up.”
Surely this is not the best way to go about things.
I’m going to assume now that everybody, upon reaching this point in the article, is reasonably concerned instead of sufficiently perturbed. Let’s pretend that we all agree something must be done, even though I’m certain I’ve triggered a fair share of eyerolls and sighs by now. What’s the next step, then?
The solution is to slow down. I know, I know — it’s the antithesis of what we do around here. It’s a sign of intellectual backsliding. It’s the big, scary monster hiding under the academic bed. We’ll get over that fear pretty quickly, however, once we discover the benefits that reading and thinking slowly have on our minds.
I have taken classes where we spend a week or more reading a single short essay: reading on our own before the meeting, re-reading aloud slowly as a group, discussing slowly and carefully without the ludicrous demands of a calendar-bound syllabus hanging over our heads. It’s incredibly freeing — calming, even. Truthfully, those classes felt more rigorous than the so-called “rigorous” classes traveling at light-speed ever felt. They stretched the limits of my mind. They made me try harder. In a world of ankle-deep kiddie pools, I finally got to dive into the ocean without floaties and feel how nice the water was, despite the strong current.
This semester, I am in a class where we are only reading one novel — albeit a long novel — for the entire semester. At the end of our deliberately slow sessions, there are still questions left unasked and topics left unexplored. If this is the case for this course, then what does this say about all our other courses that would assign such a book to be read in four weeks instead of ten? It seems to me that, all in the name of speed, we are actually doing far less intellectually than we like to think we are.
Nietzsche wrote, “In the midst of an age of ‘work,’ that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book … read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.”
Or, for those who are struggling to read deeply, consider Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
That is the only way we can start to read for pleasure again: slowly, with attention and engagement. Ultimately, this means that everybody’s out-of-class time must be considered valuable — students included. This means no breakneck schedules, no three-comments-one-question discussion posts, and no busywork. It means no pretension, which we often groan under the crushing weight of. It means respect.