In Praise of Slow Reads

An apropos moment recently: I felt dread at the prospect of reading things that weren’t Infinite Jest.[1] This is a problem for a whole bunch of reasons, but one of the reasons it’s not is related to literary exposure. I’ve been reading the book since the end of June as part of a group doing Infinite Summer, and the schedule will keep going until the end of September or so. The book’s about a thousand pages long, so about 10-11 pages a day for the entire span of the summer. I’ve gotten behind a couple of times[2] but have generally been sticking with it, and am even a touch ahead at this point. It’s coming pretty close to being one of my favorite books ever[3] and it’s possibly gotten to that coveted Favorite Book status for another friend of mine who’s in the group. 

I think a decent chunk of that has to do with the slowness of the clock. In addition to the book being kind of imposing and heavy when carrying it around, which does give your shoulders a constant awareness of the thing’s presence, reading it at ten pages a day for so long makes it a constant mental presence too: the thing that you can always fall back on, the thing that’ll be there for you at the end[4] of good days as well as bad, continuing the story as it winds through metro Boston out to Arizona and back. Having it around on so many days relates the content of those days into and around the text itself, allowing it to become a lens through which a perceiver can mediate, or ground, or reflect upon, her experiences.[5] The communal and discursive aspects of the Infinite Summer project were the most ballyhooed parts of it back when the first iteration happened in 2009, and while that’s been really valuable and I can see how it’s cool and useful, the schedule—the enforced slowing-down—the requirement that one make the book not merely a day project but a companion—enervates a certain tendency towards closeness that’s more romantic than friendly.

Noted authorial genitalia Philip Roth in an interview once said that “If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really.”[6] He claims that the act of novel reading remains an endeavor of focus, demanding continuous attention from a reader to truly connect with a text. His underlying motivation seems close to right, even if his proposition is ultimately bullshit. Reading, especially novel reading, does require devotion[7] and concentration. Wallace’s novel thematically opposes intense and singular concentration against wildly plural distraction time and time again, and while that opposition isn’t uncomplicatedly weighted towards the former in that way a lot of people think that it is, the book makes it intentionally difficult to skim, and it’s easy to get lost without active awareness. Though not to the same extent, many novels are like this, and much is lost when a reader isn’t willing to give her mind over to the text while engaging. But that’s why the slow read feels so necessary, and why it might actually work better than the two-week prescription. When you read slow, scenes transform into tableaus of character life, flashing in stark relief a primal or crucial moment that, when it’s the only thing you see in your reading in the space of a day, adheres better, or crystallizes, within the memory better than it would sitting next to two or three other scenes. Even still I’m able to recall precise detail from early scenes, and see references to, them in what I’m reading now, enhancing the extent to which the book as a whole comes together, in context of plot as well as technically and symbolically. Over a long period of time, that movement radiates outward and becomes something closer to life itself, allowing scenes to present themselves as the images alongside which one lives her summer. A novel read in two weeks is leisure; the novel read consistently across three months is an experience.

And while that’s obviously not the only way to read, or the only way to access what Freud called the “oceanic feeling,”[8] it does what might properly be thought of as increasing one’s surface-area exposure to literature.[9] It causes the text to interact with the reader more completely, and thus likewise permits it to insinuate into the reader’s consciousness. Maximizing that surface-area exposure, even if it’s of a different model than the classical approach, might be how we reclaim literary concentration in the contemporary age. Because, as Wallace so constantly points out, if we’re too distracted to be able to devote so many continuous hours to focusing on a book in a single day, maybe taking those hours and spreading them out would work as well.

[1] The reason it’s apropos: in IJ, the McGuffin is a videotape featuring a movie of the same name that, when watched, reduces the person watching it to a slobbering comatose mess who loses all interest in activities other than watching the movie. Sort of like what Transformers could have been if it were any good.

[2] The book’s physically big enough to have the same sort of effect when you don’t read it but should that Jewish mothers have when you don’t call—a subtle, but pointed, guilt-trip while it sits there on the nightstand.

[3] Though I’m predisposed to this sort of thing as a fan of the meganovel in general.

[4] Or beginning of, though I was never really functional enough in the mornings to get much reading done.

[5] It’d be interesting to think about the seasonality, too: if there’s something about reading the novel over the summer, a coherent division of time, as opposed to for half the spring into the summer or something, that increases the degree to which it’s compelling. It definitely has an aesthetic charm to it on first brush.


[7] Hazard to say, it’s not too far from religious devotion, really.

[8] Civilization and its Discontents.

[9] The thing I most like about this phrasing is that it allows for an infinite number of combinations of concentrated reading plotted against instances of reading that both admits variation and gives the Infinite Summer strategy a contiguity with the Old Way. To wit: for me, Virginia Woolf’s novels become more affective when read in as few sittings as possible, preferably the entire novel in one sitting. This is what “concentration on a book” uniquely used to mean, and it’s a style that’s much more complicated to coordinate these days. But, it’s another big surface area, here just oriented the other way around, insofar as the novel’s entire power is exposed to the reader at once. Woolf’s works tend to run at or under 200 pages so it’s more possible to do with her work than something like Infinite Jest, and I’m honestly nowhere near convinced that if someone had the time and will and access to a lot of serious mojo coffee to power through the 1,000 pages of main text and 200 pages of footnotes that make up the brick it’d be a good idea or even all that useful to read it all at once. And, of course, the mind-crunchingly obvious Important Philosophical Counterexamples of (a) the person who reads a single letter of say In Search of Lost Time every day for his entire life and doesn’t even finish it on his deathbed and (b) the person who points his eyes at all of In Search of Lost Time as he flips through the 4,000 pages of the ill-advised Single Edition without actually processing any of the words and finishes in five to ten minutes. Which is to say that this surface-area thing is a bit of an optimization problem with different ideal ratios for different authors and even different works entirely and might even vary by reader too, though I have nowhere near the requisite mathematical expertise for any reasonable person to let me anywhere near the computing machines to figure out what those might be.


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