Deep Habits: Read a (Real) Book Slowly


A Call to Read

Maura Kelly begins her 2012 manifesto in The Atlantic with a Pollan-esque exhortation:

Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

Kelly is just one voice in the growing Slow Reading movement (c.f.., here and here). The motivating idea behind this movement is simple: it’s good for the soul and the mind to regularly read — without distraction or interruption — hard books.

There was a time when intellectual engagement necessarily included long hours reading old-fashioned paper tomes. But in an age when a digital attention economy is ascendant, it’s now possible to satisfy this curiosity without ever consuming more than a couple hundred highly digested and simplified words at a time.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this new form of lightweight information consumption — the problem is the behaviors it tends to replace.

Reading a hard book, we must remember, is an experience that returns many rewards not generated by a pithy blog post (ahem) or online magazine.

These rewards of slow reading include (but are not limited to) the following:

  1. It helps you sharpen your ability to work through complicated ideas.
  2. It trains your ability to resist distraction.
  3. It adds new layers of sophistication to your understanding of others and the world we inhabit.
  4. It builds your comfort with ambiguity and respect for disciplined expertise  — both useful traits in an increasingly polarized and unjustifiably self-confident culture.

These are all worthy goals by themselves. (And the first two, in particular, are immensely useful in cultivating a deep work habit.)

For these reasons, consider this simple resolution for your New Year: commit to regularly spending a non-trivial amount of time reading a book that strains your comprehension.

(Photo by Smilla4)

51 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Read a (Real) Book Slowly”

  1. “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler might be of interest for those that wish to improve their skills in the art of reading particularly for the purpose of understanding.

    • I mean, it really depends on what you’re into. I read quite a few books last year (which I published a list of on my blog) and of all of them my two favourites, both science fiction, were Embassytown by China Mieville and The Martian by Andy Weir. The first is a lot harder and out-there than the second, the second is a lot funnier and relevant.

    • Yes I started book that Cal recommended, “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” and it was straining. For me it represents a fair amount of unfamiliar vocabulary, and expresses many of its ideas in a complex format.

      I can see the value of reading for more than enjoyment or with personally relevant material.

    • Some favorites of mine include:

      Historical Fiction: Burr by Gore Vidal
      Literature/Humor: A Confederacy of Dunces
      Classics: Anna Karenina
      Modern lit: The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

      If you need extra motivation for reading, sites like GoodReads and bibliothing offer group reads. These can be great since you’re able to share your own impressions and see how other respond to the same work.

    • I recently started the Rifter series from Peter Watts, which i strongly recommend.
      Allthough it is a fictional book, most of the technical/biological descriptions are completely accurate, so you can in fact learn something. The description of the environment the characters face is just amazing, but that’s what i expect if a marine biologist describes the bottom of the ocean ;).

    • I recommend 18th and 19th century British Lit – Jane Austen (try Persuasion), Charles Dickens (try Nicholas Nickelby), Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre). Anthony Trollope’s The Way we Live Now is a fantastic story about a Bernie Madoff-type character.

    • For those interested in the striking ways computation, art and biology are linked (as well as for the all around curious) I highly recommend Douglas Hofstaedter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach. It has everything we want – it’s deep, very hard at times and long (over 800 pages). I feel Cal must have come across this book in his career and I’d like to know his views of it. Have fun!

  2. I had tried this in the past and always struggled past the first few dozen pages. Then I tried a different tack, resolved to read at least 10 pages per day on the train ride back home from work, taking the book is small chunks. It took me a while, a month to read For Whom The Bell Tolls, but finished it and was quite pleased. Just finished Marquez’s One Hundred Years, so it’s working.

    I mix in a lighter fiction/non-fiction book in between these real books.

  3. I was at a conference about five years ago. One of the speakers said, ‘Read for depth, not breadth. If you read for breadth you will get neither depth nor breadth. If you read for depth, you will get both breadth and depth.’

    The first reading challenge we face is to default to instant information because it’s easy. The second challenge is, for whatever reason, we believe we “should” consume books in quantity. But, if learning and understanding is our goal, we are better off reading a couple challenging books this year rather than succumbing to the temptation of seeing how many we can get through.

    (I reconstructed the quote the best I could. Attributed to Dallas Willard by John Ortberg.)

  4. An additional benefit of slow reading, is the ability it imparts (especially to communicators) to appropriately clothe thoughts with words.

    Reading in this manner, finetunes the brain’s ability to construct ideas from the raw materials of written work, experience, and imagination, and then encase the finished product with the right choice of words.

  5. Where do the teachings of speed-reading and photo-reading fit into the habit of reading? Are they good methods for reading? I’ve struggled with both. I only use the “slow” method and it seems to work fine. The challenge comes from getting hands on “real” books that keep my interest.

    • From everything I have read about speed reading, I haven’t found anything conclusive about it being some kind of revolutionary technique. The one common thread between the different “methods” seemed to be avoiding the internal vocalization of words. Aside from that, there are a few tricks to help maintain focus, e.g. use a ruler or notecard to track the line you are reading and slide it down as you go.

      What I took away from it was that reading is a skill that is improved with time and effort, like everything else. The more time one spends reading, the better they will become at it. And it would logically follow that time spent reading more difficult material would enhance the skill further.

      There are some anecdotes of people who are able to read through several books every day which I do not understand. Theodore Roosevelt was one of these types, reading a whole book before breakfast with full comprehension was something of a routine for him I believe. Then he might read several more books over the course of the day.

      • Thanks Jonathan. I do not understand the feat perfomed by people (such as Theodore) who read large books over short periods and gain full comprehensive either. But, I’ll continue my exploration. Hopefully, time and effort will lead me to the results I seek. Thanks again.

    • Hi W.P. There is no such thing as speed reading with solid comprehension unless, of course, you already know the material. If the text is complex and unfamiliar, forget about speed reading. It’s like an old Woodie Allen joke,” I took a speed reading course and read “War and Peace.” It was about war. ” (I probably mangled that but you get the drift.) You can read an essay at a thousand words a minute sure. And you might, if you are lucky, vaguely understand the author’s general point, but you won’t go much beyond that. You certainly won’t understand the argument at any specific or concrete level.

      Decades ago I taught a speed reading course with some kind of learning machine that dragged your eyes across the page at ever higher speeds–What can I say? I was a graduate student and broke. I needed the money–then students got tested on what they had read. The higher the students’ speed, the easier and more general the questions became so that people could feel they were understanding what they read at high rates of speed (and the company could justify their fees).

      The only time reading slowly is real problem is if you are struggling so much with word recognition and concept understanding that your short-term memory is suffering, and by the time you finish a paragraph you’ve forgotten what the beginning said. When that starts happening, the thing to do is get as much background knowledge you possibly can from simpler sources and then go back to the original text. But that doesn’t sound like you anyway, so I wouldn’t worry about your rate of speed.

  6. Interesting post and interesting comments! Love the idea mentioned in one of the links of setting up a “Slow Reading Club” where people gather to turn off their devices and read for an hour. To response to the question of “speed reading” versus “slow reading,” speed reading is not really reading, it involves scanning a text to cull out the most relevant information. It is a highly concentrated and difficult process (perhaps as difficult as slow reading in its own way), but it does not allow one to enjoy a book or to take in its details. We don’t really need to speed read anymore now–if we want a summary of information in a book, we can just turn to the internet in almost all cases. This leaves “slow reading” as the only practice worth pursuing where books are concerned (speed read all you want through internet content). As far as a good book goes, I just finished Jane Smiley’s latest (on my ipad!). It was wonderful. And a final question: does slow reading a serious novel on a device (whether phone, kindle, ipad) not count? I guess one issue is that it is difficult to annotate on a device (although I know there’s software that allows you to do this). Any thoughts?

  7. I sympathize with the idea, but let me play the devil advocate for a moment.

    First, I find that many books are interesting, but they just bury their point in tons of useless word. For instance, I’ve the book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiment”. Yet all I retain from it is an idea of what flow is (which would fit in two paragraphs), the idea that we can help incur the state of flow, a few exemples of people practising flow in their daily life. A blog post could have conveyed these points with the same effectiveness. The only difference I can see is that I would have spent less time thinking about it, by the sheer fact that it took time to read the book. But in don’t think this kind of “brute force” approach to thinking is to be celebrated.

    Second, reading books takes time. You also have to weigh the time it takes to read a book with the benefits and enjoyment you’ll get from it. I read less books than I would like to. Still, I do read them; but my list of books to read grows much much faster than I can empty it. Consider now blog posts. I don’t mean vacuuous blog post, but solid idea-rich blog posts; think Farnam Street or Brain Pickings. They convey idea in a much terser way than books, yet I get 90% of the value for 1% of the time. They’re also not easy. In fact, I often feel the book would be easier because it would give ample context. But it would take so much more time. An inadvertent consequence of blog posts being easier to digest is that I end up spending more time reading (intelligent) blog posts than books. I can easily fit blog posts in my schedule, whereas I still feel I need to dedicate a good chunk of time to sit with a book. Granted; I could just plop in for a small bit of reading every once in a while, but that’s a mental switch I haven’t enacted yet.

    Third, is it good for a book to be hard? I feel as though I never got that much value out of books (or other materials) that made me rake my brain. Maybe it depends of the definition of hard. For me they tend to be either advanced technical topics or litterary topics that are too abstract that I can’t understand what is being hinted at. If a book makes me reflect deeply, or interrogate myself, I don’t count that as “hard”. It seems I get most of my value from materials that convey powerful (and sometimes complex, although not necessarily) ideas in a luminous way. For me, a hard book usually has one of two problems: either it’s simply poorly explained; or it presupposes a level of skill I haven’t achieved yet and I should switch to material matching my level.

    All the rewards you mention are real and important, but I don’t think reading long “hard” books is the best way to go about it, although it is a way.

    That being said, I’m down with the slow reading movement when it comes to leisure. I try to savour the fictions I read. I might also read some deeper books (although some fictions are plenty deep) for leisure. But then I’m just seeking my personal enjoyment and a bit of down time rather than trying to train my focus, enrich my wordlview, etc.. These might be indirect consequences of course. But the point is I’ll never force myself to “stick” to the book.

    • I agree with Norswap. Hardness does not automatically mean a worthwhile book. IBook reading for me must be pleasurable. I don’t read chick lit or romance novels or thriller-type stuff. I’ve read the likes of “Gone Girl” and came away feeling like I’d eaten a whole chocolate cake in one sitting.

      For me, I have to enjoy the writing and it needs to be secondary to the actual story, thus I often stop reading as soon as the book proves unenjoyable. Also, I like stories in which characters progress in some way. As a result I start a lot of books (maybe 100 in a year) and finish about a third of that number. I don’t force myself to finish a book. I have nothing to prove when I read.

  8. Thanks for this though provoking post Cal! It made me realized that I haven’t read any substantial thing since my last research, which is quite a couple of years ago.
    I found myself reading tons of article on the Internet, yet most of them are either too short or too shallow for my thought to ‘sink in’ or think about it thoroughly.

    I feel that I learn a lot from reading them, yet I cannot say exactly what I have learned (because it’s too shallow for me to remember) Such a paradox.

    Interestingly and on the contrary to this post, the fast-paced lifestyle bring a new business: summarize the content of the book for you to read in just 20 min (for example, Blinkist) I kinda like their ideas though, that most of nonfiction, self help book are mostly filled with example or story that we don’t really care, skip-able, or not that important to the core of those books.

    Though when I think about it, those boring story are what made me ‘remember’ the book more than just a bunch of clever summary.

    • I use Blinkist to “read” books and really like it. It helps you take in a lot of valuable info in a short amount of time. I usually read one book or “blink” each morning.

      But the summaries can be pretty brief and you don’t really internalize the message like you do when reading an actual book. I might try to combine the two à la Daniel Kahneman – Reading: Fast and Slow.

  9. I read and enjoy a couple of books a week and always have several on the go. I find, though, that many of the books du jour don’t stick with me – even if I make notes. What does stick are the books that people have read and discussed over time. Yep, the classics, however you want to define those for yourself personally, and ideally from many cultures. There are a lot of “greatest books” lists out there to get started. I’m currently reading Buddenbrooks – funny, sad, thought provoking. It’s long, sure, but once I quiet my mind, it’s pure pleasure.

  10. I suppose most people, like me, have so few free time to read (working 40+ hours/week) that make reading a long/hard book take a long time (months, usually), giving us a sensation of slow progress and of missing out so many other useful information.

    Besides, there are so many books that focus on the 20% of effort that lead to 80% of the results that it’s hard to spend much more time for the remaining 20%.

  11. I have some good advice on this front – read while you’re on the toilet. Last year I read Robert Caro’s massive 1200+ page biography on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, almost entirely on the toilet (along with many other books in 2014). You can also do what Larry David’s character Larry David claims to do on Curb Your Enthusiasm – sit down and read a page or two even when you’re just doing number one.

    I also tend to alternate between pretty diverse types of book – fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, children’s novels (even children’s picture books once in a while), biography, short stories, etc. etc.

  12. I am reading Don Quixote this January, quite slowly, and while I’m in the car I’m listening to Volume Three of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Both are books to read slowly, to consider carefully, as you say in this wonderful post. And, I find that classics usually surpass what we find in the best selling list. (My preference in reading is with classics and translated literature.)

  13. How timely! I recently launched a “An Essay a Day” project as part of my new year’s resolution. This is basically a blog ( I rewrite (in plain sense, retype) essays of well known authors. The habit is very meditative. It tames my mind as I, indeed, get forced to resist distractions. By doing so, I find a totally different compass of reasoning. I do not only get to experience their voices, but I also get to ride in their train of thoughts. It’s wholly different from just reading them. It’s very humbling and it shoos away narcissism.

  14. How timely! I recently launched a “An Essay a Day” project as part of my new year’s resolution. This is basically a blog ( I rewrite (in plain sense, retype) essays of well known authors. The habit is very meditative. It tames my mind as I, indeed, get forced to resist distractions. By doing so, I find a totally different compass of reasoning. I do not only get to experience an author’s voice, but I also get to ride in her/his own train of thoughts. It’s very humbling and it shoos away narcissism.

  15. “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brains.” from a (real book) – The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

  16. Recently I caught up with a friend and I asked him if he read any good books. The topic quickly jumped to “I plan to read (absurd number) of books this year!” and I immediately thought to myself, “why?” I walked away from the conversation feeling he was trying to impress me.

  17. This quote attributed to C.S.Lewis has been a good guiding principle for me

    “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

  18. Here’s a question, though.
    I’m a graduate student in the Humanities. Plenty of my time is devoted to reading deep materials in different languages. Slowly. With thought and with purpose. I read both materials which develop my career and texts which further my learning/research.

    I would argue that I spend 85% of my week reading as suggested here.
    So would this suggestion then ostensibly be automatic for a postgrad such as myself?Or are you suggesting reading a slow, intricate text outside of your field of interest in order to sharpen the cognitive abilities you list (and enrich your personal life)?

  19. Hello,

    We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

  20. To add to the whole, I would recommend reading more than one book. Think of reading “Future’ by Dmitriy Gluhovskiy and ” Life with no limits” by Nick Wuynich. Both books will leave a great impact on you and time will fly by in a moment 🙂

  21. I do miss times when I used to re-read favorite books 3 or more times, for getting better impression or understanding. I do not do that very often now because of “fear of missing out”, plus there`s always something new on the Internet. It seems like the search for new info distracts me from enjoying a good book. Thank you, great post, indeed!

  22. I try and do this as often as I can already and I love the way reading a proper book gets your mind working. Power reading through books is fine, but you’ll miss things or your mind won’t have time to process everything properly and you’ll come away with a different understanding about what your just read.

  23. For a short, sweet, highly classic but nevertheless cognitively straining book and DEEPLY thought provoking book (it’s not difficult to read. It’s not James Joyce after all), try: “Notes from Underground” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s 100 odd pages long. It might even change your life. It’s one of the first existentialist novels.


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