The Quickie vs. the Slow Burn

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I love  spending the last hour before sleep curled up with a book.  Few things stir my soul like a good story and a well-turned phrase.  And when those things coexist in the same book?  Magic.  I recently enjoyed two books filled with both, even though the feel of them was completely different.

Most summers my husband and I tackle a literary classic that we somehow escaped school without reading.  This summer’s assignment?  George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  A giant doorstop of a book (690 small font pages in the edition I read), Middlemarch follows the lives of an interconnected cast of characters in a provincial English town during the early 19th century.  George Eliot – the pen name of Mary Anne Evans – doesn’t go easy on her readers in her part-Victorian/part-modern novel.  She gives us neither the easy romance nor the neatly-packaged happy ending that so many of her female contemporaries did.  Instead we see our two protagonists – wealthy, idealistic Dorothea Brooke and skeptical, scientific Tertius Lydgate – make profoundly bad choices from which she refuses to rescue them.  Only time and compromise allow them to reach amended versions of contentment.  Just as she doesn’t allow her characters easy answers, Eliot asks her reader to get to know a whole town, their biases and predilections, in order to understand her cast and their motivations.

If Middlemarch is a slow burn, then The Hunger Games is a quickie.  I’m sure many of you have read or at least heard of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young adult sci-fi trilogy, which features a witty and clever female protagonist.  I’ll admit it: I wasn’t excited to read this book at first.  When my local book club chose it as our September read, I was afraid I was about to be pushed back into Twilight territory.  But instead of a moony protagonist who wiles away her time obsessing over her vampire boyfriend, Collins gives us a girl who is far too busy saving herself and her friends in a fight-to-the-death arena to think much about her beau’s twinkly skin.  Katniss Everdeen is smart and tough (I suspect she could kick Bella’s butt without much trouble), even while showing believable vulnerability to the impossible circumstances that confront her.  She is a believable teenage heroine and one of the better female role models I’ve seen created for young girls.  And the story itself is propulsive: Collins drops you into the land of Panem and sets you free inside her cleverly realized dystopia ruled by a Machiavellian overlord.

I plowed through The Hunger Games, staying up way too late to read and sneaking in pages when I should have been focused on my kids.  (Come on, we’ve all done it!)  Meanwhile, it took me time to read Middlemarch; sometimes, I’ll admit it, it felt like a chore to have to read it.  Then again, I breezed through The Hunger Games without marking a single passage.  Don’t get me wrong: Collins is a great writer.  But, in this book, at least, she’s not a beautiful one; there isn’t a sentence that invites you to curl up inside it.  My copy of Middlemarch, on the other hand, holds a ticker tape parade of Post-It Notes in its margins.  While Collins propelled me to the end of The Hunger Games with a furious story, Eliot spun language so full and so rich that I needed to stew in it awhile before moving on.

So which one was the better read?  The quickie or the slow burn?  It depends, of course, on what you’re looking for, how you’re feeling, what you enjoy.  I will say that I finished The Hunger Games and immediately ordered the other two books in the series, both of which I finished within days of their arrival.  The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda, meanwhile, sit gathering dust on my bookshelf.

But my experience of devouring The Hunger Games trilogy while sometimes spurning Middlemarch left me wondered if we are being conditioned, we Tweeters and texters and Facebook status updaters, to value instant gratification over the slowly savored.  Are we becoming culturally conditioned to want quick thrills at the expense of hard-earned enlightenment?

Which do you tend to read more of: quickies or slow burns?  Which do you usually enjoy more?

Next on my reading list are Katrina Kenison’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day, Claire Dederer’s Poser, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  Any other recommendations?


62 responses to “The Quickie vs. the Slow Burn

  1. Oh, your list is SO GOOD … as you know HWM is a big Middlemarch girl, as am I. And I’m in the middle of the Hunger Games right now. But let me just say what a treat you have ahead with Katrina’s book … it’s one of my very, very favorites and I can’t wait to hear what you think. I also loved Poser and Goon Squad (which I read last month).

  2. I was just talking with my students about this today – the difference between an “airplane book” (we all live overseas and all of my students have been on long flights) and a “just right” or “challenging” book and when and how to decide which to read. In general I prefer to read something somewhere in between your “slow burn” and “quickie”, but there are definitely times for all of the above!

    • Hi Kristi – Thanks so much for joining in the conversation. Most books I read definitely fall between the two extremes. I’d say a lot of contemporary fiction and most memoirs I read don’t demand as much of the reader as the literary classics – and usually that’s fine by me! 🙂

      What do you teach? I taught high school history for seven years and third grade for two.

  3. Kristen, Honored to be on your reading list in such good company — loved the other two books. My own current favorite is Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which I’m lingering over only because I really don’t want it to end. The author grieved the death of her 46-year-old sister by reading a book a day for a year, and her memoir is the surprisingly compelling story of the invaluable lessons she learned from the books that drew her back into the stream of life. Agree that it takes time to re-orient our scattered brains to the slow-burn books, but the practice is always worth it. Real relationship versus one-night stand.

  4. Poser!! You will love it! I would add the Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth. For the educator/nerd in you.

  5. You will want to curl up inside Katrina Kenison’s words. You will want to savor it, take your time with it, make it last, but you will find it impossible to not go through it quickly. She is a beautiful writer.

    I think there’s room for both the slow burn and the quickie. I like a book to engage me but I don’t really have the time to devote to long stretches of reading like I used to. I crave beautiful writing, though.

    I’ve been thinking of revisiting my old favorite Steinbeck novels. Maybe I’ll try Middlemarch.

    • I read Katrina’s first book and am a devotee of her blog. I can’t wait to read her latest.

      Your comment made me think about contemporary fiction that has that same quality of heavy, beautiful language that invites you into it. The first author to come to mind was Marilynne Robinson, Gilead and Home especially.

      • Oooh, YES! Absolutely. Robinson is the perfect example.

        Try reading JoAnne Beard. Her essays/stories, The Boys of My Youth, and her new novel, In Zanesville. While her writing isn’t beautiful and luxurious, she writes in a way that simultaneously makes you want to write and wish you could write like her. Her insights are spot on and every word is perfect.

  6. I think I really love a plot line so much that I never really savor the language or writing style. I can appreciate the composition for sure, but see, when I read, its kind of like a race against myself because I always inevitably fall asleep! When I was nursing, I secretly loved the insomnia that came with night feedings because I was able to devour so many books. Now, I’m lucky if I get in 10 pages before I doze! Nevertheless, I have read quite a few books in which I’ve also opted to sneak a few pages in when I can even over surfing the net.
    Right now my book club is reading Red Lotus by Pad Kai, about early 20th century China and concubines.

  7. I sped through The Hunger Games, and enjoyed it, but when I finished it, I realized I didn’t care enough about the characters to read the other two books. I still haven’t read them! Not that I disliked the book, it just didn’t draw me in enough.

    Middlemarch, on the other hand … while George Eliot is NOT my favorite writer by a long stretch (oh, how I hated Mill on the Floss!), Middlemarch stayed with me, made me think and ponder, and if there had been a sequel to it, I know I would have read through that. And yes, I had to plod through it at times, but it was worth it in the end.

    So in general, I find I prefer the slow-burning books, but sometimes, especially as a mother of littles, you need the quickies, too!

    • I was thinking of you while reading The Hunger Games and wondering what you, a YA afficionado, might think of it. Would you agree that Katniss is a good role model for girls – or at least a decent alternative to so many female characters that hang out waiting to be saved rather than saving themselves?

      • I would so much recommend Katniss over many of the others popular in today’s YA fiction, absolutely. At least in the first book – like I said, I haven’t read the other two.

  8. I do know what you mean. I am very much into non-fiction these days, with authors like Alison Weir, Antonia Fraser, and A.N. Wilson. But these books require a big chunk of my life to read them. I really like that, unless I have a library due date looming ahead. I have often told my husband that I need to buy these books so I can actually mark them because there are so very many gems within.

    At the same time, I will read books like The Hunger Games and authors like Mary Higgins Clark without hesitation because entertainment–in the vacuous form–is a necessity to survive! Especially with busy lives–which we all have to various degrees.

  9. I have Middlemarch on my to-be-read list! How did I, an English major, get through college and grad school without reading that novel? It has been awhile since I have curled up with a pencil and a novel worthy of making notes in the margins. Before the birth of my second son, I was on a Jane Austen kick, trying to read all of those novels that I had never explored before and re-reading the treasures I had already studied or taught. I so love the “slow burn” quality of these classics. And I find it wonderful when a contemporary author presents us with a novel worthy of slow examination in which we can delight in the details, the word play. Lately, I have been reading those “quick” novels that are enjoyable for the moment but not for the longterm. These are not novels that I want to hold onto for the future, that I want to fill my bookshelves for the day I may want to read them again. I think I may just pull out Middlemarch and start underlining now that my son is sleeping more and I have a little more time to delight in the written word.

    • I think you will really appreciate Middlemarch, Amelia. Virginia Woolf famously called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” and I think that comment captures its appeal perfectly.

      Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel? For years, mine was Pride and Prejudice, but now I am partial to Persuasion – also, I’d say, a novel for “grown-up people.”

      • Chiming in here – Persuasion is my favorite Austen, too! Followed closely by Emma, because I love Emma’s slow journey toward self-awareness and compassion. And because Mr Knightley is pretty much my ideal man.

  10. Perhaps the quickie is the kindling and the slow burn a backdrop to a different sort of evening. It’s when the tiny glowing embers of the slow burn finally fade in the hour of the wolf that I may be tempted to throw all paper into the fireplace and take to the watery part of the world.

    Sometimes I wonder if we couldn’t all just wordlessly curl up inside the feelings, or even spread out beyond feeling, like the evening itself against the very busy sky.

    In any event, I deeply thank you for read, writing, feeling and communing.

  11. I love to alternate between slow and quick reads. I have been hesitant to go near the Hunger Games series, but trust your recommendation. How fun that you and your husband can share the challenge of a dense novel. My husband doesn’t like fiction, strangely enough. He also likes documentaries better than fictional movies. I, personally, love getting lost in the made-up world of a good novel.

  12. I read fiction to take a mental vacation. So usually whatever is going on in my life dictates what I read. If life is stressful, I will pick something quick-paced and perhaps a little mindless. If life is quiet, I’ll tackle the meatier reads. For example, I read Middlemarch when I was confined to bed with mono. Of course, that was 25 years ago and I barely remember it now. Currently, I’m reading London by Edward Rutherfurd and I’ve kinda stalled in the Middle Ages.

  13. I read both, simultaneously! Just finished Lolita for the first time. Am plowing through Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music, a layperson’s discussion of exactly what the title suggests. Next up: some kind of contemporary fiction for our trip to Hawaii. I’m hoping David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King will do nicely.

    • I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read anything by David Foster Wallace (except, maybe, a short story in The New Yorker). You’ll have to let me know how you like The Pale King. In the meantime, bon voyage!

  14. The quickie versus the slow burn is usually an easy choice for me- time. It comes down to what kind of time I can devote to reading. If I am traveling and going to be stuck on a plane/train/car/boat I will usually look for something meatier.

    But there are some books that hold enough interest that I don’t care about time constraints and will consequently find more time to read.

  15. It’s all seasonal to me. Not so much based on the weather outside (please, it’s hot or less hot), but on the quality of my world. Sometimes the quick read is all I have in me. I just want a story, a good one, but just a story. Sometimes, my mind yearns for words to curl up into. I do adore a writer who makes me stop and thing and savor the way the words are put together. Or better yet, one who evokes questions that that months to gestate.
    I love that you and your husband choose a classic to read together. Hooray for academics!

  16. I like to strike a balance between the two. Oh, with nonfiction thrown in there too, just to make things more complicated. Not that I have time to read any of them on a regular-enough basis… 😉

  17. What a great idea, to work your way through books you should have read in school but didn’t. Since I was here in Arizona during my 8th grade and beyond schooling, it can safely be assumed that if it wasn’t assigned by me, then nothing was required!

    I don’t have fluff reading probably because for about two decades I read fluff nonstop – like romance novels. Then everything changed for me 10 years ago. Once I started writing I started reading. By the time I started working on my Master’s I was plowing my way through all the Anthony Trollope books! Lately, though, it’s memoirs and memoirs, for obvious reasons!

  18. I just read the entire Hunger Games trilogy last weekend. I wasn’t that excited about reading the first book, either, but thought I would just check it out since there’s so much talk about the books. Two and a half days later, I’d devoured all three books. So readable, and yes – quickies. I can’t stop thinking about that story (and wondering what age my children should be to read them… any thoughts on that?).

    I like both kids of books, quickies and slow burns. They both have a place, depending on what else is going on my life, how much attention I can devote to reading.

    • We talked about appropriate reading age for The Hunger Games at my book club on Monday night. One member told us that it is on the 8th grade summer reading list in our town. That seems about right to me, even though the violent content would give me some pause. Then again, I fear that some kids might have a much higher comfort level with violence by 8th grade than I would like; this might seem positively G-rated to them.

  19. “Kinds” of books. Not “kids” of books.

    I hate typos! My whole comment was kind of crazy today… Sorry about that. Trying to move too fast, I guess. 😉

  20. Hi, Kristen! I’m enrolled in Meagan’s writing class with you (and am currently just as much of a slacker student as I was in college, though have more valid excuses these days I suppose). Just wanted to let you know I’m loving your blog and have been having fun reading through your posts! I so relate to this one – the slow burn vs. quickie. I literally schedule reading time into my day (at least 30 mins) because I need it for my mental health. And I am constantly wrestling with the question of what to read next. I totally agree with you: we are in such an age of instant gratification, and that includes the world of literature. I think I really realized this when I attempted to read “The DaVinci Code.” Ugh. My failed effort at getting through “Twilight” made me seriously question if I should ever attempt another “quickie.” But I’ve found some I absolutely love: almost anything by Jennifer Weiner, some Harlan Coben, and – currently – Harriet Evans. Anyway, I just checked out “Hunger Games” from the library and can’t wait to tackle it. I find that I tend to alternate: slow-burn classic, then nonfiction, then quickie modern fiction. I like the variety. And you are so right: there is something inexplicably gratifying about chipping your way through a dense classic and letting the beauty of it sink in. (This is how I fell in love with “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” – heaven!) Thanks for introducing me to a great blog!
    P.S. – I am also intensely irritated by grammatically incorrect signs/printed matter/what-have-you. 🙂

    • Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for visiting my blog. I’ve really been enjoying Meagan’s class and am so grateful for the chance to connect with so many great writer mamas.

      It’s funny you should mention Tess. I read it in high school and don’t remember much about it. My husband went on a big Thomas Hardy kick a few years ago and has been after me to reread it ever since. And now your comment makes me think I should put it back on my bedside table (where all my want-to-read-soon books hang out…sometimes for months at a time!). 🙂

  21. I’m all about the quickie. Maybe it’s having three kids. Maybe it’s having only half a brain to devote to intellectual pursuits most days. Maybe it’s just plain laziness. But I don’t think I have the patience to wade through Middlemarch. Can we still be friends?

    And Hunger Games? I’ve been resisting because it’s about kids fighting and, presumably, kids dying. So, it sounds like it’s worth a read, despite all of that?

    • You know, I was talking about the whole kids dying thing with a friend of mine and I’m sort of confused as to why it didn’t bother me. Since having kids, I can’t deal with fictionalized violence in general and am usually completely repelled by violence toward kids. So why, then, did I gobble up this trilogy that is very much about kids hurting and getting hurt? Mysterious.

  22. Wonderful post.

    When I need the quickie, I go for short stories, essays, or poetry. It’s rare that I get to indulge in the slow burn – and some of that is the habit of the past decade and one I need to get out of, now that interruptions are no longer such an issue, particularly in the evening hours.

    Ironically, one of my kids recommended Middlemarch to me more than a year ago. It sits at the top of one of my piles of books. Waiting.

  23. But what is your overall view of Middlemarch? Was it worth the work? That’s the crux of it, no? One day, I hope to read Infinite Jest. I didn’t think I’d ever want to, but after reading Franzen and starting the first two pages of Infinite Jest, I think I’m going to dive in. At some point. One day. When I have time, or something.

    And I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. (Not as crazy about Poser; enjoyed Ordinary Day.) Jennifer Egan is tops as a writer for me. I saw her speak and she said that she was influenced by both The Sopranos and Proust for that book, and I can tell. I got The Sopranos down, so now I need to tackle Proust. But I don’t think I can do it alone…. (nudge).

    • Yes, I’d say Middlemarch is absolutely worth the work. I think I remember you telling me you had tried it, but had to put it down? I totally get that. The first 100 pages or so, especially, can feel pretty impenetrable. But I think you’d find it worth your while – maybe even in a few years when you feel like you have more discretionary reading time.

      As for Proust, that’s one (or rather several – can’t remember how many volumes his masterwork is) I would love to tackle too. My husband has read it so I can’t count on him joining me in it for our next summer read.

  24. At this stage of my life, I tend to prefer the quick reads. (BTW: I loved Hunger Games when I read it last summer — can’t wait for the movie!). Everything else in my life feels pretty overwhelming most days and I use my reading time before bed as a way to unwind and do something that I enjoy that is just for me. Hopefully in a few years my brain cells will grow back and “real” books will be more entertaining again. 😉

  25. I adore the way that you set this up and I LOVE your recommendations.

    Do I dare admit that I haven’t read either one of these?!

  26. I never know if a book is going to be a slow or a fast read. It all depends if things click right away, if the font size is large enough (it does affect my reading speed), the style of the author and my interest in the story.

    My favorite book so far is “A Dog’s Purpose” and I recommend it to everyone. This summer’s favorite is “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit”. Fascinating, chilling, baffling real story of an impersonator.

  27. I vary the two and like you, sometimes read them together – depending on my mood, I may pick up the page-turner or one that involves much more thinking and contemplating. I love Middlemarch – one of my absolute favorites that I re-read every few years – and I’ve been curious about Hunger Games so this post is quite a treat for me. It has definitely convinced me to order Hunger Games for my next quickie.

  28. This is timely for me. I just got a random urge to read Little Women (slow burn), so I’ve been reading a little bit during sleepless hours when I’m up with my baby. I also recently read Goon Squad (happy medium?) and the first Stieg Larrson book (quickie). For me, it really depends on my mood. Right now, I’m enjoying the Alcott pace, but there’s nothing more fun than a page-turner that keeps you up way past your bedtime!

    • The Hunger Games trilogy was definitely one of those up-past-your-bedtime experiences for me, one which has its limitations when kids are determining your wake-up time in the morning (and throughout the night!). 🙂

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  29. I loved North and South so I would probably love Middlemarch. It’s all the Russian novels that are gathering dust on my shelves. I just want easy breezy right now (and ever since I became a mom). Hunger Games are read, and I’m waiting for my husband to finish the last of Song of Ice and Fire to be able to read that.

    A Suitable Bore is not cutting it for me either. But I do not have easy access to English books and beggars cannot be choosers.

  30. I read the Hunger Games trilogy some months ago. I heard somewhere that it was intended to replicate the experience of a video game. It was sort of that way for me. I was into it at the time, but it hasn’t stayed with me. On the other hand, I’ve never forgotten Dorothea and Lydgate, who were so clearly meant for each other.

    Just finished the first volume of Game of Thrones. It’s much more accessible than Middlemarch, with more depth than Hunger Games. Not a quickie, not a slow burn. More like a forest fire.

  31. Ahh, Middlemarch. One of my all time favs. I love your eclectic tastes. I read Middlemarch during my book-snob-days. You know, when you will only read the classics? About 10 years ago I finally started reading “pop fiction” again and have loved stumbling across some great “quickies.” Thanks for adding to my list!

  32. Such a thoughtful post. I think I need both in my life – the hard-earned victories/reads and the quick and delicious bites… A balance between the two is ideal (and unattainable) I think… Thanks for making me think. xox

  33. As you know, I call “quickies” – inhalers. EVERYONE deserves a good inhaler. I like to think, like everything, that it’s about balance between the two. Because reading should ultimately be about joy – not work, and so if it brings you joy, that is really all that matters. 🙂

    • I’m so glad to be reminded of the term “inhalers.” Love it.

      As for the joy vs. work question, most of the things that give me the most joy (e.g. my kids, my relationship with my husband) also take the most work. Most of my favorite books have taken a commitment too. Hmm…

  34. So great to connect with you via twitter and to read all your book reviews here! Hope you’ll have a look at mine when it comes out in March ^_^! All the best to you!

  35. It depends, I suppose on the book, on what is going on in my life at the particular moment I am reading it. But I enjoy the slow burns. The quickies often leave me forlorn, wanting to reread, angry at myself for not pacing myself in a more disciplined way.

  36. I am partial to both. Lingering over the words of a classic or marching through a mystery, as long as the writing and story are captivating, there is a likelihood that I will enjoy the read. Great question.

  37. Love your blog, Kristen, and I love that idea of assigning yourselves one of the classics. I managed to get a degree in English Lit (and make it through high school before that) without reading a single word written by Charles Dickens. I always want to assign myself one of his just so I can feel legit as an English major but so far have only gotten as far as taking a poll as to which I should read…

    A pleasure reading your words, and sharing our class together. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Sarah.

      Despite being a history major, I took a class in grad school on – you guessed it – Charles Dickens. He remains one of my favorite writers, and Great Expectations is definitely my favorite. I wonder how that one fared in your poll. 🙂

  38. I vote for the slow burn. Two of my favs–one old, one newish–The Good Earth (Pearl Buck) and A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry). Of course I like a quickie on the beach in the summer (hmm, that doesn’t sound quite right!) but they never stick with me for long. When I finished A Fine Balance, I thought about the characters and choices for weeks. I love books that make me think about life, justice, who we are, why we are, and the rest.

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