The Case for Reading Fewer Books

I never plan the coincidence of what I’m reading, but the random mixture of my broad-ranging choices often presents interesting outcomes. More of my stories and poems than I can count sprout from a strange mixture of genres. I might be listening to a commercial horror audio book, reading challenging literary fiction in paperback, and slowly paging through a poetry anthology all at the same time. I read nonfiction for research, fun popular fiction to know what’s going on in the industry, classics to understand my genre lineage, funny books, sad books, sexy books, thoughtful books, outrageous books, and even my critique partners’ books. It’s always interesting to see what effects these various concoctions form in my mind, and it’s often delightfully serendipitous.

For the past chunk of time – probably a month at least, I would imagine – I’ve been reading a poetry collection called The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds as well as the long gothic novel The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. This happy coincidence taught me one important thing: the incredible value of reading slow.

  

When I read the opening poem in Olds’s collection, I had to put the book down. It struck me hard, and I wanted to stop and think about it. The next day, I read the second poem, and I swear by the end of it I was breathless. I had the type of reaction a poet can only dream of: wide eyes, pounding pulse, brain whirling. I had to close the book. I might have uttered choice profanity and lovingly clenched the book to my chest. I am honestly not kidding or even exaggerating. She’s that good.

And that was the crazy part: almost all of the poems were make-me-stop good. Over and over I tried to sit for longer chunks and read several poems, but I never could do it. I had to digest each one thoroughly, reread many again later before moving forward. I had to take it slow so I could better savor the work of who has certainly become my new favorite poet.

Switch to The Witching Hour. This book is over a thousand pages long. It’s dense as hell and certainly a commitment to start. Knowing that Anne Rice would take me there (and remembering how it happily took me my entire junior year of high school to read Queen of the Damned), I eagerly sank into the slow, rich, meticulous pace of it. It took me all of a week to realize three things. 1) I had been cheating myself by subconsciously choosing shorter books. 2) Long books can do things that shorter books simply cannot accomplish. 3) There is nothing more magical than getting lost in something you love when you know that something will last.

If you’ll forgive the adult metaphor (gasp! sex!), The Witching Hour reminded me why the height of a book’s plot is called the climax. Shorter novels can have wonderful climaxes too, of course, but it’s simply not possible for them to achieve the amount of sheer momentum and build-up of a longer book. More pay-in creates more pay-off. I knew these characters not just by their most interesting/unique attributes, but in all of their moods and aspects. I knew not just enough backstory to carry me through, but the entire history of them and their family. I knew not just what was at stake for this one couple, but for the world at large. By the time I got to page 900 I felt like I’d lived several lives and the end was nigh, and, again, I was left literally short of breath. It’s been a really long time since a book made me feel like that.

For some reason, it took the coincidence of Olds and Rice to make me realize how much I love this – reading slow – and how much I’d stopped doing it. I think this shift came about around the same time I started using Goodreads. Don’t get me wrong; I adore Goodreads. But keeping track of how many books I read each year makes me naturally number-hungry. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so even if I don’t set a concrete number I want to read each year, I still find myself subconsciously ticking off a checkmark each time I finish something new. The ramifications of that are that I choose easier, shorter, faster books almost without even thinking about it. I want more numbers, more checkmarks, and that made me quietly reluctant to pick up Tolstoy or The Historian.

What a loss.

At least now I’m aware of it, so I can stop letting quiet hesitations influence my reading choices. (And for the record, it’s not as if I was reading bad quicker reads; I was and will still read really amazing shorter novels too!) The first thing I did when I finished The Witching Hour was go out and buy the two sequels. Up next after those? I don’t know. Maybe Tolstoy or The Historian. 😉

There’s so much value in reading slow, reading thorough, reading thoughtfully. Hell, why not re-read? I’ve always heard writers talk about reading a book again right after finishing it the first time: once for story and once for craft. I’ve re-read books, sure, but not back to back. I think maybe I will now. Why not? It isn’t about the number of checkmarks I get. It’s about how much pleasure reading brings to my life, and like all good things, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth doing slowly.

Read less? Never.

Read fewer books? When they’re worth it: absolutely.

Do you find yourself reading fast and easy, or toward a goal? When was the last time you let yourself really savor something? Speed-readers and dawdlers alike welcome to the conversation! 🙂

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