Relearning Slow Reading

Continuing on with the 100 Book Challenge: Over the past couple days I finished The Interrogative Mood by Padget Powell, and Tolkien: A Biography by Michael White. I am not sure that I could have picked two more different books to chase Stardust, but I enjoyed them both nonetheless.


Powell calls his interrogation of the reader “a novel?” and I tend to agree with him. This is not quite fiction, and not quite nonfiction. Powell only offers a story through what the reader’s own answers might be; as such it is both provocative and entertaining. In this book more than any other, I think the experience of each reader becomes truly unique. One can read it as a brisk, playful experiment in style and form, or one can savour it, allow reading to become an act of active meditation. Either way, I tend to follow in the footsteps of the professor who recommend that I read this as a way to relax and learn a bit about writing at the same time, and suggest it to anyone who asks me for a title.


On the other hand, Michael White’s exploration of Tolkien’s life and how it shaped his writing was a completely different experience. Previously published, and possibly better known in academic circles, as Critical Lives: J.R.R. Tolkien, this biography successfully deconstructs the myth that surrounds the author who perhaps crafted the greatest mythology of the modern world. I have always idolized Tolkien; making my own rudimentary ties between his epic and his posthumous publications and older fairy tales and Norse myths is what first propelled me towards studying literature. But I had always tried to avoid learning too much about Tolkien’s life because I think I subconsciously didn’t want to impose someone else’s reading of the man upon my reading of the text. However (though to be fair I don’t have another biography to compare to) I found White’s treatment of both Tolkien’s life, and how it effected his writing to be balanced, and I am not sure that should I pick up The Lord of the Rings in the near future that I would find my own readings changed. He created this text with as much care as Tolkien crafted a world that was necessarily and understandably more real to him than this world.


But what I noticed in both books is that for the first time in a long time, I was learning to slow down, enjoy reading for the sake of the activity itself. I didn’t need to sit down pencil in hand, taking notes, jotting down marginalia. I could ponder sentences, reread paragraphs just because I liked the flavour of the words. Reading quickly has been something I’ve always been proud of—how many can I get through, how long till I read everything in the library (I haven’t yet). But slow reading… this is a lesson I am only recently learning and glad of it. Slow reading makes one an observer. Instead of skimming over the page, one dives beneath the words. And the most satisfying thing, and the most frightening thing, was that the last time I consciously remember doing that was long before I owned a laptop, before early smartphones even existed, with a well-worn copy of something from Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. Satisfying, because I realized I hadn’t lost the habit yet. Frightening because I hadn’t realized how close I have come to losing the skill. Becoming a conscious observer in books, realizing how much we forget to look at on the page might even help us to figure out just how much we miss in our everyday lives, if only we dive into our surroundings as readily as we might dive into carefully, lovingly crafted prose.


Until next time…


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