Book Review: How to Read Slowly

How to Read SlowlyI don’t remember how the book How to Read Slowly: Reading For Comprehension by James W. Sire first came to my attention, but it caught my eye when it did. I didn’t want to change my reading speed necessarily, but I did want to learn how to retain more from what I read, especially non-fiction (stories seem to stay with me longer and better with less effort). Even with marking quotes, using sticky tabs to mark the most important passages, and sometimes even outlining the chapters, I still tend to forget a great deal. Even though this was a book about comprehension rather than retention, I figured the one would aid the other.

I had not known Sire was a Christian when I bought the book, but right at the beginning he states that though this book would be beneficial to any reader, he primarily wanted to encourage “Christians to think and read well. Christians, of all people, should reflect the mind of their Maker. Learning to read well is a step toward loving God with your mind. It is a leap toward thinking God’s thoughts after Him” (p. 12). To which I say a hearty “Amen!”

With both instruction and example, Sire shows how to detect an author’s world view, how to read “between the lines” while not “inventing or imagining what is not really there” (p. 42),  how to “track the flow” of author’s argument or reasoning process. He has a whole chapter on poetry, another on reading fiction, another on reading in context (not imprinting our current way of thinking on older books, but understanding the context in which they were written). He gives tips for how to read, what to look for, what to mark, and encourages a lot of rereading. He talks about the difference between reading nonfiction and imaginative literature.

Here are some quotes that stood out to me:

What is the primary reason for reading poetry or any imaginative literature? Beyond all psychologizing as to real or apparent motives, we read literature because we enjoy it — and we enjoy it because we are grabbed by it, our attention is arrested. We say, “Aha! Yes, that’s how it is.”

In great literature — poetry and fiction — we see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, the world around us. We see our interests portrayed in bold relief — our questions asked better than we can ask them, our problems pictured better than we can picture them by ourselves, our fantasies realized beyond our fondest dreams, our fears confirmed in horrors more horrible than our nightmares, our hopes fulfilled past our ability to yearn or desire. In literature we catch reality in a mirror…

Life is short, but art is long. Sophocles is dead, but Oedipus lives on…Each of us when we read a great piece of literature is a little more human than before (pp 58-59).

Well-wrought poems and works of imaginative literature can do for us what stone-cold prose can never do. They can help us grasp the full dimension of ways of life other than our own (p. 86).

Our ability to read well depends to a large degree on just how clearly we understand ourselves and how much we realize ours is not the only way to look at reality….I am not saying we ought not to disagree with anything we read. Indeed not. We must disagree if the thrust is in opposition to what we take — after reflection, study, and prayer — to be the truth. But we must also be sure that we have “heard” the other person as he or she wishes to be heard (p. 141).

We have more to fear from naivete with regard to error than we do from clear knowledge of error that we recognize as error….A knowledge of the truth is the best defense against error (p. 146).

One thing the Bible does not do: it does not denigrate the mind. The Bible is not anti-intellectual. Rather it gives the reason why all of us know what we know, why we can think with some degree of accuracy, and why we fail to think with complete accuracy (p. 148).

Every avid reader struggles with the sheer amount of good books on our shelves that we haven’t gotten to as well as the ones we see in stores or online or recommended by friends. Sire says, “We will never catch up. But we can get on with it…Reading does get done. The point is to start and then to read well. How far we get, how many books we read, must not become the issue” (p. 155).

I don’t know if I would say that I enjoyed the book – it’s not something I’d pick up for fun. But I did benefit from it. It feels a little like high school or college English class in some places (not surprisingly, Sire taught English literature and philosophy at various colleges), but I liked classroom English, so I didn’t mind that aspect of the book. The section on the mechanics of poetry got a little technical for me (I had not known, or else had forgotten, what a spondee was), but I appreciate his illustration that even the meter and rhythm of a poem illustrate its message. I just don’t know how many people are seriously going to count syllables and abab cdcd the rhyming lines outside of a classroom unless they’re really into poetry. But that’s the only part that went a little overboard (for me. Someone else may have found it fascinating). This is a book I would highly recommend for anyone interested in the subject.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: How to Read Slowly

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  2. Barbara, thank you so much for sharing about this book! You did an excellent review because I definitely am putting this on my wish list. Thanks so much!

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  4. Interesting the reason he wrote the book. And the quote “how far we get, how many books we read, must not become the issue” really struck me because I’ll be the first to admit that I can fall into that trap of reading through as fast as I can because I’m behind my goal of number of books read.

  5. This is one of my favorite “how to read” books but it’s been years since I read it. Your review makes me realize I should re-read again it soon.

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