Posted June 25, 2015 04:00 am - Updated June 25, 2015 04:00 am

Year of Reading Foreign: The slow burn

I’m a fast reader. That’s not boasting. That’s a fact. I kept stats for 2014 and I average one book or 342 pages every three days. (Yes, stats. Like a sport. Competitive reading.)

But those stats hide a lot of variation. I can read a 350-page book in several hours. It can also take me several weeks. The later has been the case with “Death and the Dervish” by Mesa Selimovic. 453 pages long; three weeks and counting.

It’s not that it isn’t a good book. It’s extraordinarily. But it’s not a fast read. It largely consists fat chunks of exposition, a beautiful and heartbreaking expose of the narrator’s internal turmoil. Said narrator, faced for the first time in his life with the kind of drama books are normally composed of, responds with crippling indecision, half-measures and the overwhelming feeling it’s all going wrong.

It is not a story of heroes or anti-heroes who solve the case, save the girl and go out with a bang. It’s about doubts and fears. It is about a man who thought he understood the world who discovers he doesn’t even know himself.

“Neither then nor long after did it occur to me that human thought is an unsteady wave that is stirred and calmed by the capricious winds of fear and desire,” he writes. The introduction calls the subject of the book faintheartedness or moral cowardice but I find it an all-too-honest description of human reaction to life’s unexpected but unavoidable choices.

So, no, it’s not a fast read. It’s a read 3-10 pages and then stop to marinate on them kind of book. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you can fit in another set of 3-10 pages before you just have to stop for the evening and think about what you’ve read. (I have a friend who likens this to “sipping fine wine.”) I can’t move on to a new scene if I haven’t finished savoring the last. And I don’t want to gobble it down. That would be unpleasant.

So I stop reading and hence, three weeks later, I’m still working my way through “Death and the Dervish.” There’s a sequel, “The Fortress,” but after this marathon I don’t think I’m going to attempt it. It’s draining to me, to read so slowly. Reading for me is like binge-watching TV for others — I like doing it in large quantities for hours at a time.

I don’t want to give up like the person who owned the book before me. They only made it halfway and left me a unicorn bookmark in the process. But I’m beginning to despair of ever finishing it. Sometimes it’s easier to watch six hours of “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” than two hours of a Criterion movie.

Simply put, it’s hard for me to read so little. After the 20-or-so pages of “Death and the Dervish” a day, I still want to be reading, I just can’t read anymore “Death and the Dervish.” And so in the last three weeks, I have started and finished at five books during breaks from “Death and the Dervish”:

“The Heir” by Kiera Cass — The fourth book of the three part Selection Series, the “Bachelorette” version to their “Bachelor.” Enjoyable, with a gorgeous cover as always.

“Eugenie Grandet” by Honore de Balzac — One of those depressing classics featuring a saintly maiden and a roguish love (sadly un-salacious), best quote: “And Eugenie was to learn everything about womanhood except its consolations.”

“I Was Told There’d Be Cake” by Sloane Crosley — A selection of humorous essays.

“A Natural History of Dragons” by Marie Brennan — A fantasy novel taking the form of a Victorian memoir by the irrepressible Isabella, Lady Trent.

“The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter” by Malcolm Mackay — Glasgow crime thriller with a distinctive voice, as advertised.

Each book, however enjoyable and necessary for my reading diet, takes me further and further away from ever finishing “Death and the Dervish.” How to keep up the excitement three weeks in? It’s beginning to look more and more like I won’t be finishing this book.

And that’s okay. Because reading speed and the probability of finishing has nothing to do with the quality of the book or the quality of the reader. Maybe instead of a slow burn this is a slow burnout. And maybe there should be no shame attached to not finishing every book you started. I even have a separate category in my stats for that.


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