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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

I am no slow eater. I can’t remember the number of times I was told as a child not to gobble my food. Neither have I ever been a slow reader. I went through books like combine harvesters through crops in the English village of my childhood. I suspect I will continue to gobble my food until, and no doubt including, my last meal on this Earth.

But books! Now they are an entirely different matter. During these days of isolation and physical distancing I have at last seen the error of my ways and decided to make changes. Mainly, I must admit, because I am deprived of bookstores and libraries.

Browsing online, be it ever so simple, is just not the same as standing before floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with tomes and breathing in that aroma of brand new volumes as you select a book and carefully take it down. Add to that, the wonderful dusty, musty atmosphere inside a good second-hand bookstore and I am in heaven.

But no longer, or at least not for some time.

So I have decided the time has come to teach myself to slow read. Didn’t someone once say “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good?”

I imagine slow reading to be like slow cooking; a mixture of ingredients melded into something one can truly savour. Slow reading is enjoying each sentence, absorbing those paragraphs of description sweated over by the author and more often than not skipped over by readers like me who as soon as we get the gist are anxious to get to the action.

This isn’t to say I pay only random attention to a book. Before deciding on one, I have always read the synopsis on the inside front flap of a hardback, the “about the author” blurb, then looked at the date of publication and list of previous books, read the dedication, the forward, glanced at the photos (if any) and taken a peek at the author’s acknowledgments, usually at the back. Then, and only then, do I move on to the opening sentence. That is essentially no different now as I select the two unread books waiting on the bookshelf.

These days, time is certainly not of the essence and, like most of us, I find myself with more than enough hours in each day. But how to make two pristine, never even been opened books last until the shackles are loosened, the doors of bookstore are left unlocked and the mask washed and put away until the next pandemic? Impossible I grant you.

But there is a way to extend the reading of a book. I will learn from that all-the-rage slow-cooking method and attempt to apply it to reading. This way perhaps I can make these long anticipated novels last far, far longer than usual.

The first task must surely be to ration my reading to two hours a day. No more and no less. But a funny thing happens when you take two hours out of the day, every day and at the same time, for something you really, really enjoy. There is less time for all those boring but necessary tasks associated with modern living in the era of COVID-19. I find I experience that same quiet sense of accomplishment I used to enjoy when my children were babies and occasionally rewarded me with two hours peace and quiet in the afternoon, which back then seemed the equivalent of a week’s vacation.

But which book to tackle first? English writer Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, a novel touted as “a work of rare depth and texture … from one of the best writers of our time”? Or award-winning Newfoundler Michael Crummey’s The Innocents, “a richly imagined and captivating story of hardship and survival,” whom The Globe and Mail says is, “without a doubt one of Canada’s finest writers.”

If I can’t slow read these obviously masterful works, then surely there can be no hope for me.

But which first? Toss a coin! Transcription wins.

I am glad I didn’t try to read this complex story at my usual pace. I suspect I would have missed much of the irony, the nuance and the sheer brilliance of the writing. Instead I immersed myself slowly and completely in the life of innocent 18-year-old Juliet thrust into an obscure department of MI5 – weren’t they all – in London during the Second World War, only to find her entire life coloured by that bizarre experience.

It took me two weeks to finish this novel, often pausing at the end of a chapter to reread it for the sheer joy of laughing aloud at the heroine’s sly observations. I have always been a fan of Atkinson’s prose.

I am ashamed to say I had never read any of Crummey’s books, which I shall now remedy even if that means, in these cloistered times, reading online.

The Innocents are Ada and Evered, two children orphaned in an isolated cove in Newfoundland and left to figure out life and their own survival on their own. Even the dust jacket, from a painting by Diana Dabinett, conjures up the roiling ocean that forms a backdrop to the pain and confusion, caring and kindness of these two children.

It has been hard not to gallop through this powerful narrative – it took a similar amount of time to read – but I have resisted. My patience has been rewarded with insight into the characters and rich descriptions of the northern reaches of Newfoundland – so real that I can almost feel the lichen between my toes.

So here I am, two books finished that have taken a month to read, slowly. I have been entertained, enriched and transported in time and place like I never have before, day after day after day.

Now I have discovered the joys of taking my time over a book I doubt I will ever again announce proudly, “It only took me a day/a couple of hours to finish!”

Here’s to slow reading.

Kate Barlow lives in Oakville, Ont.

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