Fast reads vs slow reads

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through the back episodes of the very helpful and entertaining Print Run podcast. In a March 2017 episode, Laura and Erik discussed the vagueness and general inaccuracy of the category of books called “literary.” Many books that seem to fit well within a genre such as science fiction or mystery also have qualities that could be considered literary. Also, differentiating literary from other genres makes it sound as if one is better than the other.

I like the idea of rejecting literary as a category. General does feel like a better fit if a novel doesn’t fit neatly within one genre.

I’ve lately been thinking that some books are fast reads, while others are slow. I sometimes hear people describe a book that is a fast read as a “light read,” but I’m not sure that’s fair to these books. There can be richness and insight in a book I read quickly. Fast reads often, but not always, are clearly within a genre, and the expectations of the genre are partly what makes for a fast read. In a mystery, for example, I tend to expect a crime that needs to be solved, and I quickly recognize one character in a role like a detective and another as perpetrator.

But even novels that fit the mode of a traditional genre can be filled with dense language or insights, and by dense, I mean abundant and rich as opposed to hard-to-decipher. So that kind of novel would fall in my slow read category. I enjoy both kinds, for the record. Fast reads have a special allure because I get caught up into the story and race to the end, almost unaware of what is happening in the world around me as I jog after the answer to my driving goal to know what will happen next. I sometimes find myself skimming parts in my eagerness to keep going.

Slow reads, like slow food or mindful eating, ask me to slow down and savor each step. One book that comes to mind for me is Lorrie Moore’s A gate at the stairs, where I recall feeling torn between my curiosity to know what would happen to the protagonist and the discovery that almost every paragraph had a kind of inside joke or flash of irony or startling use of language.

It seems to me that some slow reads might be described as a reading experience—that is, the experience of connecting and absorbing everything as you go along.

I doubt these reflections help resolve the tension around trying to force a label on a novel, but it helps me to make sense of what brings me to a book as a reader, and what to consider when I construct a novel as a writer.

2 Comments

  1. I run a book club and we do tend to describe books as slow reads, easy reads and fast reads. Sometimes its not necessarily the genre of the book, it’s just the authors style of writing which just flows easily, the words and punctuation just make a book easier to read, the chapters tend to be smaller and each chapter ends with you wanting to read the next. Slow reads are books for us that can be put into two categories. The first just don’t grab us within the first few chapters, they have little pace, have too many characters that we care little about and a plot line that is slow to be released, many of us give up with these and stop reading them. The second slow reads are books that seem to challenge us, were we have to keep going back to re-read passages again to get the understand, they are very wordy and over descriptive, the punctuation is stunted and the author just uses far too many ‘big’ words than necessary and we feel they must have sat with a thesaurus trying to dumbfound the casual reader and please the literary scholars. These books tend to have an interesting plot but it tends not to satisfy and characters that we cared little about or annoy us. However when we do finish them we feel a sense of relief but also satisfaction at getting through it.

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    1. Good points! Some of your slow reads would probably fall into my “Won’t Read” category :). The ones I call slow reads are good reads, just benefit from close reading, which takes time. Nice to “see” you. I hope you are doing well.

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