When it comes to reading, lifehacking tends to focus on speed — more words, fewer minutes. That might be fine if reading is understood as a matter of moving information with maximum efficiency from the page to the brain. The faster the connection, so to speak, the better.
But there are other kinds of reading. No one can race through a poem by Emily Dickinson or a short story by James Joyce and take away very much from the experience. Therein lies a problem for students reading literary works. On the one hand, there’s the impulse to get through an assignment, to knock off a poem or story and move on to another task. On the other hand, there’s the poem or story, the kind of text that invites and rewards patient attention.
My advice: slow down. Here’s what the poet Ezra Pound says about reading literature: “no reader ever read anything the first time he saw it.” Or consider this exchange between Oprah Winfrey and the novelist Toni Morrison: “Do people tell you they have to keep going over the words sometimes?” “That, my dear, is called reading.” Or as the poet William Carlos Williams says in the poem “January Morning,”
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it? But you got to try hard –
And here’s the novelist Zadie Smith, in an interview, likening the reader of literature to a musician learning a piece of music,
an amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.
Taking the time to slow down — marking a passage, pondering a detail, looking up a word, writing down a question, changing your mind, looking at the page in a way that allows you to begin to notice what’s there — might change, for keeps, your idea of what it means to read literature. Slowing down will also help you begin to understand how it is that some people seem to see so much in what they’re reading. They know that reading well sometimes means taking your time.
Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art.