Slow Reader: My Life as an Unhurried Writer and Thinker

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Detail from Rembrandt van Rijn, Titus van Rijn, le fils de l’artiste, lisant, 1657, oil on canvas

I read rather slowly, I always have. I even have the habit of running my thumb down the edge of the page, alternating left-to-right, as I wend my way through various books and articles. Regardless of the reason why I’m reading something, my eyes habitually take their time working their way down to the end of each page. When I was in elementary school I think some of my teachers and their aides must have thought I was intellectually slow. However, I tested well and was consistently one of my teachers’ favorite students. Not all of them favored me, of course, nor I them. When, for example, I was taking a high school English course with Mr Murphy he had us read some ‘American Short Stories’ anthology. Do you know this book? It’s supposed to be a classic. Anyway, Mr Murphy was very proud of the fact that he considered himself a brisk reader, claiming to read any of the stories in our book in less than 15 minutes, which he said he did nightly before going to bed. In class, though, as we held our pocketbook editions in our hands, we were told to read a story by Sherwood Anderson. “It shouldn’t take you longer than 30 seconds to read each page,” he asserted before giving us fifteen minutes in which to complete Anderson’s story. Concentrating as best I could, I nonetheless felt myself racing over the pages, seeing each word, but not really reading them. Then, when time was called, Mr Murphy looked at me and asked me for my opinion about some facet of the story. I sat there speechless. I couldn’t remember anything! After an uncomfortable eternity, Mr Murphy chided me for my silent reaction and proceeded to ask another student the same question, who had something of a response, having had the advantage of extra time to sift through the story before being put on the spot. I felt mortified. I also felt angry. This pompous old man had the audacity to presume that teaching merely consisted of boasting about his intellectual prowess then setting up his students for humiliation! Worst of all, I resented the experience of being forced to rifle through a story like that. It felt unnatural, not to mention disturbing. Unsurprisingly, I wound up getting a D for my final grade. Mr Murphy obviously didn’t like anything about me or my performance in his class, in which I was never disruptive, disrespectful, nor even a minute late. Fortunately, life moved on and I left that school and that dreadful man behind for opportunities in higher learning where I could indulge my inclination to savor words and sentences, rereading them again and again, until I felt at one with the text. It’s how I got through college, through two graduate programs. And it’s how I got through my doctoral dissertation, writing a phenomenological analysis of the poetic experience. Reading slowly is who I am and it defines my relationship to the written word, which has influenced my work as a scholar, as I carefully read and reread my sources, and as a teacher, as I try to guide my students into the inner depths of the texts I ask them to read and read again.

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