Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have this agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path.
In short, the fast-slow polarity – or antithesis, if you prefer – strikes me as false. We all have several guises as readers. If I am reading – to pick an obvious example – James Joyce, slow reading feels appropriate. If I’m reading the instruction manual for a new washing machine, it doesn’t.
Call it Reader’s Despair Syndrome, a condition that is afflicting New York’s young and old with equal viciousness, but which tends to produce the most dramatic symptoms in people in their 20s and 30s, who retain hope that they will one day become more productive and virtuous in their Internet reading habits. “It makes me very sad, obviously, when I face the fact that there are like 115 items and I know that I’ll never read them,” wailed a 25-year-old hedge fund analyst at a rooftop party over the weekend. “And it’s like, why can’t I be a good enough person to know things about anything? Why am I so pathetic that I can’t even read, like, 100 words a day? And then I have to hit the ‘pretend everything is read’ button, which is basically like hitting the ‘lie to yourself’ button. It’s embarrassing. I hate myself when I do it. It’s like the biggest possible failure you could have in your entire life, basically.
A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read ‘The Lost Symbol’, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.