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Slow Reader

On taking one's time.

I am a slow reader. Joke all you like, but it’s true. When my wife and I are reading an article side by side, she’ll be filing her nails and tapping her foot by the time I’m ready to scroll down to the next section. This is not an asset for someone whose livelihood has to do with the written word.

Difficulties are compounded by the fact that I like very long books, and that I re-read compulsively. This is not an efficient way to become widely read; it is a downright bad way to stay on top of literary fashion. One of the several reasons I fit poorly into my M.F.A. program was a failure, followed by a refusal, to know what was going on. These literary people absorbed new books, new magazines, new reviews telepathically. They were the world’s fastest readers, which must be why they could lavish so much time and attention on how they dressed. They had smarmy comments about the latest stories in magazines I had never heard of, let alone seen, let alone read! They had an opinion about everything! They knew everything!

I did not know everything, and I dressed poorly—no chic, just shabby. Who is Ottessa Moshfegh, I would think, and keep my mouth meekly shut. I was working, sometimes two jobs, and I was traveling by bus to D.C. every weekend. My great readerly accomplishment in my first year of grad school was getting through the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. Not very impressive, and even less modish. I was not fit for the sparkling conversations of my fellows in the matching flannel shirts and beanies and the weird quasi-formal sweatpants people were wearing back then; I stopped trying.

After my entry into the hard world of true adulthood, the slow reading thing became less of a social embarrassment—I haven’t seen someone in the weird sweatpants for years—but, as I fumbled around a career in the press, it became more of a professional liability. The best way to get some bylines in this godforsaken industry is book reviews. Books do not require you to travel, they do not decline your interviews, they do not threaten to sue you for libel. You do have to read them, though—at least for the better sort of review. My slow reading turned my early career into a comedy of missed deadlines and groveling emails to various editors, who, to their credit, were always very generous.

Reading long things slowly and then reading them again is not, however, without virtues. You become very familiar with a writer’s tricks; you start to see the skeleton under a book’s flesh. When you read Infinite Jest seven times, you pick up a thing or two. When Orson Welles was tasked by RCA with making the film that would become Citizen Kane, he sat in a theater and watched Stagecoach forty times. It’s a bit like the Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”; you eventually become the sort of person who writes the books you’ve been reading. Or that’s the hope, anyway.

In addition to this purely practical benefit, this way of reading (slowly and repetitively) has the effect of giving periods of one’s life a particular psychic color or mood. My late college and early postgraduate years, freaked out and grandiose, were the David Foster Wallace era; grad school, as mentioned, were the days of Proust. (And who better than Proust for when you’re living in New York, America’s only truly European and truly Freudian city?) I am currently deep in my own personal long seventeenth century—Robert Burton, Samuel Pepys, and the fingers of Anglophony stretching backward to the Tudors and forward to the Hanoverian press, my professional ancestors.

It’s a species of intellectual provincialism, I suppose. Yet I doubt that I will change at this late date, wife’s annoyance or no. In the real world, tortoises rarely win races, but they also rarely compete. If we have found something we like, why not enjoy it for a while? Peter Gwyn’s biography of Wolsey took me from this January until late September. I’ve been gnawing on The Anatomy of Melancholy for about four years, and, at my current expedited pace, ought to have done with this read in another two. At an entry a day, Pepys should keep me occupied for another decade. And then who knows what my forties will bring. Maybe I’ll find out about Ottessa Moshfegh.