But I knew intimately that my sister could read a shelf of books in the time it took me to read just a couple of her favorites. I rarely finished a series while she had time to ask for more and more until she’d exhausted the words of her favorite classic and contemporary authors alike. Never mind that I stayed up in secret and skipped sleep for any number of books. And when I encountered the thirteen-year-old girl who would become one of my closest, lifelong friends, I was stunned. It wasn’t just my sister who could devour a book in a sitting. It was my friend too, another bookworm who could take home a novel and report on its full contents the very next day. Meanwhile, I ambitiously checked out several books from the library at a time and required the full loan period to ingest them all, with my one eye roving the lines, often losing its place at the break. As dearly as I loved reading, I began to wonder if I was not a good-enough reader. For what or whom, I wasn’t sure.
It wasn’t until I committed to my writing as a lifelong craft that I truly began to feel pangs of some grave deficiency. As I studied creative writing in graduate school, it seemed that my peers, regardless of age, had somehow filled themselves with so many volumes of books that I’d never catch up. I became a mother midway through my MFA and my reading time became even more scarce, but I had a companion as I strategized to complete my course readings. With an infant at home and one and a half years of study left in my program, I started borrowing audiobooks regularly from my public library, via the Libby app, for the first time. I listened to books in the car on the way to class, while I held my sleeping baby, as I washed milk bottles and picked up toys from the floor. And because I tend to listen more deeply when my hands are moving, I cherished these listening sessions. I established a habit of acquiring physical and/or electronic copies of a book in addition to audio, often zooming in on my Libby app to help my very tired eye turn the line breaks without skipping words. I read, and enjoyed, the assigned readings when I had new access points available to me, the stress of visually consuming a thick hardcover lessened.
I got through those final semesters and left the program with faith in reading as both a creative practice and an essential means of participation in the literary community. I found so much joy in reading an author’s book and then hearing them talk about their creative process at an event on campus. And I loved volunteering myself as a first reader for my peers’ work. Both then and now, when I find writing poetry or prose especially difficult, I know that reading something new or beloved will restore my creative spirit. Reading, whether on the page or via audio, teaches me how to be a writer. As a poet, I find so much pleasure in hearing an author’s work masterfully read aloud by an audiobook narrator who can capture the essential rhythms of the story. I glean so much inspiration from these moments of magic, as my own writing rhythms are trained, honed, and chiseled.
As dearly as I loved reading, I began to wonder if I was not a good-enough reader. For what or whom, I wasn’t sure.
But the tension between these creative ideals and ableist notions of productivity and accomplishment has continued to haunt me. Since committing myself to the craft of writing as an adult, I’ve had a new reason to feel like an imposter in the writing community—how would I ever catch up to quick readers who had been studying their craft since before adulthood? I’m awed by scholars who seem to have taken in the “canon” and who routinely engage in the vital discourse on contemporary and historic literature from underrepresented communities. I also know I will never be, for lack of a better term, as well-read.
I was even fortunate enough to come from a home where my father’s beloved classics by authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Jules Verne filled our bookshelves, either in the original Spanish or in translation. He’d acquired them as a young bookworm in Ecuador who had to be shooed out of the house whenever his parents wanted him to see sunlight. While I understood Spanish and spoke it well enough, my reading eye and I were not prepared to take in that much text in my native, but since weakened, language. And so I lived beside his abundant collection of hardcover classics with their curling, well-loved edges but never finished a single one.
I see now that I can’t aspire to catch up to anyone’s knowledge by attempting to absorb the entire literary canon of any heritage, including my own. Instead, I can only hope to read what interests me right now, be it ancient or recently released. But even that joyful venture is daunting to me—a slower reader—and it’s difficult not to feel left behind.
I posed the question of being a slow reader to one of my online writing communities, asking if anyone else identified themselves as such, writing in part, “I realize that’s where a lot of my feelings of unworthiness as a writer come from.” The responses were both validating and illuminating. Those who read slowly by requirement—whether because of disability, neurodivergence, or any other reason—shared how disheartening it felt to know how many books exist in the world that we will never get to read. Even keeping up with books in just one niche category, wrote one commenter, was a feat for them as a slower reader. Another writer, who identified as a quick, voracious reader, expressed the opposite—the thrill of knowing they’d never run out of literature.
Something moved in me when I found out that there are other readers like me who lament the sheer number of gorgeous books we’ll run out of time to read. I’ve given myself permission to grieve that conceptual loss. But I’ve also been lucky enough to read the words of disabled readers and writers who are advocating for the kind of rich access I benefited from while completing my MFA. I am committed to allowing myself to take in stories in both comfortable and challenging ways, as I see fit. I accept living beside books I will never read, like my father’s, as much as I accept the opportunity to read those I will. And as a community, we need to continue to heed readers who point out that an audio story requires a written transcript while a written text should be accompanied by an audiobook, that an ebook is accessible to some while the printed page is necessary for others. It should go without saying that literary events should be captioned and given signed interpretations, that they should be remotely accessible and, when held in person, physically accessible to all. That writers who are caregivers or disabled or chronically ill deserve the opportunity for full participation in these types of events. Universal design for access is a must; we should quickly move beyond the need for so many of us to clamor for it.
I was so fortunate to attend a creative writing program where I felt nurtured rather than judged and where accessibility felt like a priority. I know many writers from underrepresented communities haven’t had the same experience. While I studied both poetry and prose there, it marked the beginning of my earnest education in poetry. The act of reading poetry, more than any other practice, has taught me the value of deep, slow reading. A page of poetry is often soothing to my eyes in a way that dense prose is not. But both are compelling to me, and poetry teaches me to approach each page of prose as if it were only one page, so that I am released from the pressure of needing to consume an entire book at any given pace. Being driven by the need for accomplishment, whether to please myself or others, has always been painful. In the realm of art and literature, it is crushing, and therefore unnecessary. Poetry, and all those precious points of access I encountered as a student, saved my joy of reading, and I won’t let that joy be wrenched from me or placed on the altar of achievement.
Books invite me to graze and have my fill in my own time. I, a slow reader, will never get to all the words I long to read, but I will relish the ones before me.
Cristi Donoso is an Ecuadorian+American writer whose work has been published by or is forthcoming from The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, Lake Effect, and PANK Magazine. She is a 2021-2022 PEN/Faulkner Writer in Residence and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Born in Quito, she lives outside Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter @cristideebee.