But there is power in reading slowly, something the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li tells her creative writing students at Princeton University. “They say, ‘I can read 100 pages an hour’,” she says. “But I say, ‘I don’t want you to read 100 pages an hour. I want you to read three pages an hour’.”
That’s the speed Li is happy to read at, even if she is re-reading a familiar text. “People often say they devoured a book in one sitting. But I want to savour a book, which means I give myself just 10 pages a day of any book.” On an average day, Li … reads 10 different books, spending half an hour on each title.
At that pace it can take Li up to three weeks to finish a novel. “When you spend two to three weeks with a book, you live in that world,” she says. “I think reading slowly is such an important skill. Nobody has ever talked about it, or taught me that. I’m a very patient reader. Even if it’s a very compelling book. I don’t want to rush from the beginning to the end.”
Consider a story by one of the great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty (1914–2002). It’s called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate an alien society’s educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting moment for the Iowans — they interview a girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly announces that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute. (As Stanislas Dehaene explains, that’s pretty close to our maximum speed.)
“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. “They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”
Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth,” one of the adults says. “We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”